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Voices of Polonia – Krzysztof Kieślowski, Polish Screenwriter and Director

By Ted Racjchel | Columnist 

Krzysztof Kieślowski, (June 7th, 1941-March 13, 1966) was a Polish film director and screen writer. He is known internationally for “Dekalog” (1989), “The Double Life of Veronique” (1991), and “The Three Colours” trilogy (1993-1994). Kieślowskireceived numerous awards during his career, including the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize (1988); FIPRESCI Prize (1988, 1991); The Venice Film Festival FIPRESCI Prize (1983); The Golden Lion (1993); the OCIC Award (1993); and the Berlin International Film Festival Silver Bear (1994). 

In 1995 he received academy award nominations for best director and best writing. In 2002, Kieślowski was listed at number two on the British Film Institute’s (BFI) Sight and Sound list of the top ten film directors of modern times. In 2007 Total Film magazine ranked him at number 47 on its “100 greatest film directors live” list.

His Early Life

Krzysztof Kieślowski was born in Warsaw, Poland, the son of Barbara and Roman Kieslowski. He grew up in small towns, moving wherever his engineer father, a tuberculosis patient, could find treatment. He was raised Roman Catholic and retained what he called a “personal and private” relationship with God. 

At sixteen, he attended a firefighters’ training school but dropped out after three months. Without any career goals, he then entered the College for Theatre Technicians in Warsaw in 1957, because it was run by a relative. He wanted to become a theatre director, but lacked the required bachelor’s degree for the theatre department, so he chose to study film as an intermediate step. 

Leaving college and working as a theatrical tailor, Kieślowski applied to the Lodz Film School, which has Roman Polanski and Andrezej Wajda among its alumni. He was rejected twice. To avoid compulsory military service during this time, he briefly became an art student, and also went on a drastic diet to make himself medically unfit for service. 

After several months of avoiding the draft, he was accepted to the school’s directing department in 1964 on his third attempt. He attended Lodz Film School until 1968 and despite state censorship and prohibited foreign travel, was able to travel around Poland for his documentary research and filmmaking. He lost his interest in theatre and decided to make documentary films.  

His Early Work

His early documentaries focused on the everyday lives of city dwellers, workers, and soldiers. Though he was not an overtly political filmmaker, he soon found that attempting to depict Polish life accurately brought him into conflict with the authorities. His television film “Workers ’71,” which showed workers discussing the reasons for the mass strikes of 1970, was only shown in a drastically censored form. 

After “Workers ’71,” he turned his eye on the authorities themselves in “Curriculum Vitae,” a film that combined documentary footage of Politburo meetings with a fictional story about a maunder scrutiny by officials. However, Kieślowski believed he was criticized by his colleagues for cooperating with the government in its production. 

Kieślowski later said that he abandoned documentary filmmaking due to two experiences: the censorship of “Workers ’71,” which caused him to doubt whether truth could be told literally under an authoritarian regime, and an incident during the filming of “Station” (1981), in which some of his footage was nearly used as evidence in a criminal case. He decided that fiction not only allowed more artistic freedom, but could portray everyday life more truthfully.

His Polish Film Career

His first non-documentary feature, “Personnel” (1975), was made for television and won him first prize at the Mannheim Film Festival. Both “Personnel” and his next feature, “The Scar”(Blizna), were works of social realism with large casts. “Personnel” was about technicians working on a stage production, based on his early college experience, and “The Scar” showed the upheaval of a small town of a poorly planned industrial project.  

These films were shot in a documentary style with many non-professional actors. Like his earlier films, they portrayed everyday life under the weight of an oppressive system, but without overt commentary. “Camera Buff” (Amator, 1979), which won the grand prize at the 11th Moscow International Film Festival, and “Blind Chance” (Przypadek, 1981) continued along similar lines, but focused more on the ethical choices faced by a single character rather than a community.

Ten Short Films

“Dekalog” (1988), a series of ten short films set in a Warsaw tower block — each nominally  based on one of the Ten commandments — was created for Polish television with funding from West Germany; it is now one of the most critically acclaimed film cycles of all time. Co-written by Kieślowski and Piesiewicz, the one-hour-long episodes had originally been intended for ten different directors, but Kieślowski found himself unable to relinquish control over the project and directed all episodes himself. Episodes 5 and 6 were released internationally in a longer form as a short film about killing and short film about love, respectively. Kieślowski had also planned to shoot a full-length version of episode 9 under the title “A Short Film About Jealousy.” But exhaustion eventually prevented him from making what would have been his thirteenth film in less than a year.

Film Success Abroad

Kieslowski’s last four films, his most commercially successful, were foreign co-productions, made mainly with money France and in particular from Romanian-born producer Martin Karmitz. These focused on moral and metaphysical issues along lines similar to his film “Blind Chance” (1982), but on a more abstract level, with smaller casts, more internal stories, and less interest in communities. 

Poland appeared in these films mostly through the eyes of European outsiders. The first of these was The Double Life of Véronique (Double Vie de Véronique, 1990), which starred Irene Jacob. The commercial success of this film gave Kieślowski the funding for his ambitious final films (1993, 1994), “The Trilogy Three Colours” (Blue, White, Red), which explored the virtues symbolized by the French flag. 

The three films garnered prestigious, international awards, including The Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival and The Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, in addition to three academy award nominations. Kieślowski announced his retirement from filmmaking after the premiere of his last film, “Red,” at the Cannes Film Festival.

Stanley Kubrick

On the forward to “Dekalog: The Ten Commandments,” American filmmaker Stanley Kubrick wrote: “I am always reluctant to single out some particular feature of the work of a major filmmaker, because it tends inevitably to simplify and reduce the work. But in this book of screenplays by Krzysztof Kieślowski and his co-author, it should not be out of place to observe that they have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. 

“By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain and added power of allowing the audience to discover what’s really going on rather than being told. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don’t realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.”

Interview at Oxford University, 1995

Kieślowski said: “It comes from a deep-rooted conviction at if there is anything worthwhile doing for the sake of culture, then it is touching on subject matters and situations which link people, and not those that divide people. There are too many things in the world which divide people, such as religion, politics, history, and nationalities. If culture is capable of anything, then it is finding that which unites us all, and  there are so many things which unite people. 

“It doesn’t matter who you are or who I am, if your tooth aches or mine, it’s still same pain. Feelings are what link people together, because the word ‘love’ has the same meaning for everybody, or ‘fear’ or ‘suffering.’ We all fear the same way and the same things, and we all love in the same way. That’s why I tell about these things, because in all other things I immediately find division.”

Polish screenwriter and filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski, was one of the most popular filmmakers in the international circuit during his heyday. He won numerous prizes throughout the top film festivals during his career. He was a leading Polish director who achieved international acclaim from behind the iron curtain. 

Krzysztof Kieślowski began his career by making documentaries that focused on the cultural, political, and economic problems of Poland during the waning days of the Soviet Union. Having grown up under both Nazi and Stalinist rule, Kieślowski naturally gravitated toward the political and often remained at odds with authority, while at the same time relying on state financing to make his films.

Personal Life

Kieślowski married his lifelong love, Maria (Marysia) Cautillo, on the January 21st, 1967 during his final year in film school. They had a daughter, Marta, born in January, 1972. They remained married until his death.


On March 13th, 1996, less than two years after he had retired, Kieślowski died at the age of 54 during open-heart surgery following a heart attack. He was interred in Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw. 


Kieślowski remains one of Europe’s most influential directors. His works are included in the study of film classes at universities throughout the world.

References: (1) Krzysztof Kieślowski—Wikipedia; (2) Krzysztof Kieślowski—Search Movies, TV; (3) The 10 Best Krzysztof Kieślowski Movies Ranked; (4) Krzysztof Kieślowski– Morally Concerned Filmmaker, Provider, Director, and Writer; (5) Krzysztof Kieślowski—Biography.


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