Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski
Twenty years ago, Krzysztof Kieslowski created what was to become his swan song, a trilogy of films based around the revolutionary concepts of the French flag – liberty, equality, fraternity. Shot and edited to be released at the Venice, Berlin and Cannes film festivals, this was cinema that bestrode Europe like never before. Kieslowski, star of the Lødz film school, went from a gritty social realism of his Polish roots and, upon the fall of Communism in his homeland and across eastern Europe, moved to France and developed an aesthetic that was more internal and personal. With the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the influx of European democracy and capitalism into the former Soviet vassals, perhaps Kieslowski felt that the political struggle was over, not of his concern. Or perhaps it was a new Poland he did not understand. Either way he left for France, Poland’s state funded cinema no longer being able to fund his projects. One suspects the cut throat world of the Warsaw portrayed in White was his satirical view of what had become of his homeland.
Of the three films it is White which spans the two sides of that new Europe. Karol is impotent in the west, but a feted winner of competitions and diplomas in the east (another self deprecating portrait by the director?). It is only when he has mastered this beast and become a successful and wealthy businessman that he is finally able to consummate his annulled marriage, and then back in Poland. But how far do the qualities of the French flag bleed into White? Liberty involves being trapped in a suitcase, smuggled across borders, and faking one’s death to imprison your ex-wife in a misguided revenge plot. Fraternity exists in agreeing to kill a friend for money, but firing a blank (literally, not sexually), calling on friends and family to help in the fake death (even so far as getting a corpse – a Russian one with a crushed head, of course). Equality, too, is questionable – Karol’s trial before French law he feels is biased because of his nationality and language barrier, while Dominique’s arrest and trial is the result of being framed. Are Poland and France equal? Far from it. Poland is seen as a land of spivs, violence and greed, a cheap competitor to France’s cultured society.
I am looking back at the trilogy from a Europe that is far from unified. Britain, in particular, has become obsessed with the migration from eastern Europe of workers that would have been teens or less at the time of the films release. The fears that seem to dominate the press and politicians are of Poles that do not fit the portrayal in White of cunning, hard working, entrepreneurial and ultimately successful persons. The view is that of Karol the vagabond in the underground, begging. The catastrophe at the end of Red that brings the trilogy’s main protagonists together is a ferry disaster caused by a terrible storm that raged, unpredicted, across the continent. How apt that the unforeseen financial crash and subsequent social, political and economic storms that have raged across Europe since have indeed highlighted the values of the French flag and our failure to live up to them. The freedom of people to move across the united Europe is challenged unlike the freedom of capital to evade taxation. Conversely the freedom of those who caused the catastrophe remains. This clear lack of equality before the law for the wealthy and the poor means we are a continent of Karol’s before the Paris courts, impotent and unable to consummate the continent’s union.
Red is the one film that relies entirely on technology for its narrative success. A Europe “united” by telecommunications is the pre-requisite, enabling Valentine to remain in touch with her jealous boyfriend in England (and Hungary and Poland), for a personalised weather forecasting service to exist and the romance that arose from it. It allowed the suspected organiser of half the heroin trade in Geneva to function, untouched by the authorities; and the secret gay affair of the family man living across from Joseph Kern. But, as illustrated in the opening sequence, this technology is fallible and throughout the film missed, mis-directed, monitored and un-monitored calls are all key to the web of communications that envelop the characters and the consequent dramas that arise from them. It seems personal, face to face, contact is impossible, if not extremely uncomfortable. Valentine’s brother finds it unbearable, others have to lie about their health and their groceries, about their secret love affairs. All of these scenarios rely on secrets and unwillingness to communicate the truth – something that Kern personally decides is a lack of modesty, a vanity. Listening to these deceptions he clearly feels his world view validated. What he lacks is the emotional connection that comes from direct, personal, communication. Valentine says that people are not bad, only weak. Kern understands this – he is not the emotionless rock that Julie longed to be in “Blue”; he says that he, too, in their position would lie, cheat, steal. He has, however, never been in the other’s shoes. His self imposed exile and isolation, echoing Julie’s in the earlier film, stands as a metaphor for the isolated nations and peoples of Europe. They may hear the goings on of their neighbours, witness violence but only stand by and let it happen, refuse to sign to evict a sex worker, but they do not involve themselves – for better or for worse. The unification of Europe, the freedom to cross previously sealed borders, the equality between people and the fraternity of a continent together in peace, is the overriding dream of the social and political parable the trilogy tells. Come out of isolation, Kieslowski calls out via his characters; do not let your neighbour suffer, do not leave the old woman to struggle to dispose of their rubbish – join with and help.
Such an optimistic and fraternal call seems a distant dream in the economically fractured landscape of contemporary Europe. In 2015 the lack of equality has brought about the curbing of freedoms and the loss of the sense of fraternity. The economic powers of Germany, France and Britain look down in horror at the collapsing economies of Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal. Migration from former Communist states in the east into the north-western powerhouses is a political issue giving rise to far-right anti-European (isolationist) parties. New threats are touted – a resurgent Russia and radical Islamism in the post 9/11 and Iraq war world. While capital is free to be shifted from place to place and thus enable it to be free from taxes that benefit the ordinary population, free movement of people (migration) is a rallying cause for many right-wing parties. Equality is scarcely a concept, unless it is seen in the American neoliberal concept of opportunity to become grossly un-equal, one way or another. The state is seen as something not to be involved in the concept of equality, a left wing, socialist, ideal that, in the aftermath of the fall of Communism, was a failure. The market was to decide, as we saw in “White”. As Kieslowski left behind the overtly political and social films of his Polish period to take up more personal themes, he seemed to acknowledge that politics was a spent force as far as conflict, drama and change was concerned. Fukuyama’s “End of History” narrative may have been rescinded after 9/11 launched the “New American Century”, but for the Europe of the 1990s it seemed that capitalism was the end result and everything now would be life style choices of the individual. Aiding an old woman at the bottle bank or taking an injured dog to the vet may be, as Kern intimated, to stop you dreaming of a dog with a crushed skull, but that was how it would be; there would be no factory strikes, no workers actions. The trials we see in this trilogy are for divorce and eavesdropping, and a retired judge is a benign and tragic character, far removed from the trials under martial law in Kieslowski’s 1985 feature “No End” or the death penalty so excruciatingly portrayed in “A Short Film About Killing” (1988).
In the end, Kieslowski’s swan-song trilogy exists as a perfect testament of the time, that optimistic hope of survival and fraternity after the storms of the cold war. He would never know that the symphony for the unification of Europe would become a desperate gasp of a floundering project, not a bold beacon of peace and hope as was. If he had lived, he would be 74 – still able to make films (Godard is 83). What films might he have made about the troubled continent his art spanned in a way its ideals could not? He always searched for the feelings that united people, and always gave his struggling protagonists a second chance. In an interview at Oxford University in 1994 he said:
“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.”
Looking back at his wonderful trilogy 20 years on, the social and political moment has passed, but their artistic perfection remains undoubted. Indeed given the obsession with superheroes, attention-seeking transgression and the faux-realities of CGI, his vision elevates to something of a treasured height of the past, like Julie’s blue lamp shade, Karol’s two franc coin and Kern’s pen. Kern’s pen failed and the “error in time” (as Kieslowski described the logic of “Red”) was corrected to pass to Auguste and his pen. And so what do we write now? What judgement do we pass on our time?