Recently I jokingly tweeted: “I always have trouble watching Krzysztof Kieślowski’s films b/c I’m so busy admiring their beauty that I forget to pay attention to the plot.” Of course, that wasn’t entirely a joke. Widely regarded as a vanguard of Eastern European art cinema, Kieślowski stunned the world with a surgically precise, unmistakably idiosyncratic body of work that held a microscope up to both post-Communist Poland and the limits of the human soul. Perhaps due to the daunting, almost brutalist scope of his filmography—including such intimidating masterpieces as the magnificent yet monolithic Dekalog (1989), a collection of ten hour-long short films examining each of the Ten Commandments set mostly in modern-day Warsaw—many critics and historians tend to reduce his work to their basic philosophical and/or religious underlinings. For example, we remember Dekalog because of its examination of faith and morality in a society burdened for decades with state-sponsored Atheism. We remember The Double Life of Véronique (1991) because of its examination of self-identity as explored through the idea of human doubles. And we remember the Three Colors trilogy (1993-94) because each film centered on, respectively, the big concepts of liberty, equality, fraternity.
But have we been doing Kieślowski a disservice by focusing primarily on what his films “meant?” In studying the meaning of Véronique have we forgotten the heart-aching elegance of its fairy-tale puppet show? In interpreting the philosophical underpinnings of Three Colors, have we forgotten the sight of Juliette Binoche swimming alone in a deep, deep blue swimming pool? So while watching his 1987 film Blind Chance, I made sure to do two things: keep my mind open for what Kieślowski was trying to say and keep my eyes open for what Kieślowski was trying to show.
A causal triptych, Blind Chance examines three possible outcomes in the life of doctoral student Witek (Bogusław Linda) following a mad dash for a train to Warsaw. In the first he makes the train, befriends an Old Guard Communist named Werner (Tadeusz Łomnicki), and joins the Party. In the second, he misses the train, gets into a fight with a railway guard, converts to Roman Catholicism, and joins the anti-Communist resistance. And in the third, he misses the train, doesn’t fight the railway guard, falls in love with a woman named Olga (Monika Gozdzik), starts a family, and leads a fulfilling life as an apolitical doctor and medical teacher. Despite their differences each narrative thread shares similar attributes: he is “adopted” by a father figure (Werner, a wheelchair-bound priest, his medical school’s dean); he enters a romantic and sexual relationship with a young woman (his first love Czuszka (Bogusława Pawelec), the sister of a childhood friend, Olga); the end sees him struggling to catch a flight to Paris (to attend a Communist meeting, to take part of a Catholic conference, to snag a connecting flight to Libya in order to deliver medical lectures). But most tellingly, each story ends with calamity. In the first, Witek’s superiors betray him, destroying his relationship with Czuszka and his faith in the Party. In the second, the underground disowns him because of suspicions that he informed the authorities of the location of their secret printing press after it gets raided in his absence (he had abandoned his post for a sexual liaison). And, most famously, the third ends with Witek’s sudden death after the plane bound for Paris explodes shortly after take-off.
I find the interpretations suggesting that the plane’s destruction represents a condemnation on Kieślowski’s part for apoliticism during times of societal upheaval hollow. If anything, it bespeaks a general undercurrent of pessimistic fatalism: despite his best efforts all of Witek’s possible lives end in failure. Considering the political climate under which the film was made, this seems somewhat probable. The film was begun during a brief political thaw in 1980-1981 when the Communist government was challenged by nascent labor unions. A time of optimism and high spirits, the opposition was later tragically crushed by the government which rigidly re-enforced its domination over Poland’s cultural sphere. Kieślowski was unable to finish the film before the end of the thaw, resulting in the film’s confiscation and shelving for six years before being released in a truncated, politically safe form. Much like with Witek, Kieślowski’s chance for personal fulfillment exploded in his face.
I suspect that most Western audiences will find themselves either ignorant or indifferent to the minutiae of Polish politics. Blind Chance’s existence as a political film cannot be ignored, but personally I found these subtexts eclipsed by the film’s unearthly beauty. Much like in his later Three Colors trilogy, Kieślowski (aided by cinematographer Krzysztof Pakulski) frequently dominates his frames with a single color broken up with one or two props or background details: the fateful train station wallows in a dull, grayish blue (broken by a red political banner); Werner’s apartment walls glow purple (interrupted by beige doors and yellow lights). Few directors could make brightly lit rooms seem so dark and shadowy—even in bright sunshine harsh shadows spill onto Witek’s face from the corners of the Communist government building.
Blind Chance was recently released on Blu-ray by the fine folks at the Criterion Collection. While boasting an excellent transfer of the restored film, the supplementing materials leave something to be desired. Perfunctory interviews with Polish film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski and filmmaker Agnieszka Holland provide interesting political, artistic, and sociological context for the film, but they can hardly be deemed essential. However, the release does feature one fascinating extra where the censored moments of the film are shown back-to-back in both their original edited and restored versions. In a brilliant move, the removed footage is shown in color while everything else is in black-and-white. In my opinion, this technique should be the new Gold Standard for releasing previously censored cinema.