A visual Kafka in Poland

Ib Bondebjerg

The world fame of Kieslowski is tied to his ten-part Decalogue series (1988) and his film trilogy Trois couleurs: Bleu, Blanc, Rouge (1993-1994). They represent his move towards a modern European art film tradition to which he contributed with a strong moral and existential focus on the distance between despair and hope, isolation and love, individuality and social responsibility. But even in these feature films he carries his experiences with him from a Polish society in which people were suppressed under a communist bureaucracy. The concrete social, human, and political reality of this Kafka-like society and bureaucracy dominated his short films and documentaries from the start of his career as a filmmaker in the 1960s. Here often very simple visual registrations of social life and Polish institutions were filmed in such a way that a more symbolic dimension and a message between the lines were visible. In his later films more existential and symbolic themes dominated and the narratives were not always directly linked to specific social and political conditions. But still the settings and atmosphere gave the narrative space a realistic dimension that draws on the same experiences as the earlier more political feature films and his documentary films.

The student documentary film The Office (Urzad, 1966) is a very early example of the themes and tendencies in Kieslowski’s documentary production before he became a modern European art film director in the 1980s. It was in fact his first film along with another student short fiction, The Tram (Tramwaj, 1966). Most of his early films in the 60s and 70s were short documentary films with a strong, though often subdued, political critique and satire. Nevertheless, many of them were banned by the communist regime. Films like The Photograph (Zdjecie, 1968), From the City of Lodz (Z miasta Lodzi, 1969) – his graduation film from the Lodz Film school – I was a Soldier (Bylem Zolnierzem, 1970), Factory (Fabryka, 1970), Refrain (Refren, 1972), and perhaps his most well–known one, From a Night Porter’s Point of View (Z punktu widzenia nocnego portiera, 1978), were all short, insightful, often subdued satirical or lyrical portraits of everyday life in Poland.

But Kieslowski also made longer documentaries such as Workers ’71 (Robotnicy ‘71,1972), in which Kieslowski tries to portray the mentality of the working class at the time of the strikes and rebellion against Gomulka; the drama-documentary experiment Curriculum Vitae (Zyciorys, 1975), where a real party committee interrogates an actor in a fictional story; or I don’t know (Nie wiem, 1977), with its confessions of a former factory manager. These films are very direct visual snapshots of reality in a Communist society, and often with a sharp political edge.

Even in his first feature films such as Scar (Blizna, 1976), about industrial disasters in the name of social welfare and development, or Camera Buff (Amator, 1979), a satire on political censorship in Poland, Kieslowski continues a clear political agenda, but again often with extensive use of visual symbolism and a very non-utopian political ideology. He is more interested in the ways in which contradictions always seem to appear, no matter what kind of system we talk about. The fall of the wall and the end of communism did not inspire a more positive outlook on life in Kieslowski’s films – the political despair was just replaced by existential and human despair. He remained a sharp existential and visual observer of human life as a mostly tragic or tragic-comic phenomenon. He is a modern, visual Kafka.

Kafka at the office
Kieslowski’s first two short films point in two different directions and in many ways start the two major themes and tendencies in his whole oeuvre. The little short fiction film The Tram has the voyeur and love motif. It is a very simple story of a young man on a bus at night, completely taken by a beautiful young woman whom he is staring at and who gives him a smile when he closes the door to protect her from the draft. After leaving the bus he suddenly realizes as the bus drives away that he should have stayed to continue the relation and starts running after the bus, but too late (Insdorf, 1999: 11; Danusia Stok, 1993: 237). Already in this film we are inside the mind of numerous male characters in Kieslowski's later films.

The Office, on the other hand, is a poetical and satirical documentary film, a visual, political commentary on Polish reality and politics, but also with an interesting montage, sound-image relation, and framing. It is in some ways a documentary film in the tradition of American/European observational cinema (cinema direct/cinema verité) but with stronger visual symbolism. The films uncommented visual portrayal of old people waiting in line to hand in applications for pensions, the staff behind the glass and the backstage archives, the very deliberate use of non sync or off-screen voices express the total alienation of people in this society. But the style also seems to underline the often quoted sentence by Kieslowski about his minimal narrative style when asked about what the film school in Lodz taught him: "The Film School taught me how to look at the world. It showed me that life exists and that people talk, laugh, worry, suffer, steal, in this life, that all this can be photographed and that from all these photographs a story can be told. I didn't know that before" (Kieslowski in Danusia Stok, 1993: 46-47).

In this little film the story told by a montage of situations and small human portraits is one of old people on trial. It is also a story showing how these people simply don’t understand how they can be on trial and the kind of system that produces this atmosphere of trial. But the camera reveals this and moves from the surface and deep into the heart of bureaucracy. Words, images, gestures, facial expressions, body language and so on, everything speaks in this film, revealing the system and its inhumane and ‘Kafkaesque’ nature.

The film is clearly divided into three rhetorical and visual statements and forms. The first part of the film is characterized by its impersonal, off-screen dialogue between clients and clerks. The dialogue is about forms and stamps that are missing; formulas and paperwork seem to rule everything here. No dialogue ever deals with the real social problems, but only with correct or incorrect procedures. So it is quite symbolic that the film disembodies the voices and that the camera at the same time moves around catching short glimpses of troubled faces, nervous hands fumbling with papers and so forth. The framing goes from medium to ultra close up, furthermore underlining the disembodied and alienating treatment of humans. They never seem to step out as distinct, concrete persons; they are just clients, faces, and passing things.

The second part of the film establishes a point of view just at the spot where client meets clerk, the glass dividing civic society and state bureaucracy. In this part of the film the focus is mostly from inside and out, so we see and identify with the clients. However, we also see the clerk for the first time. In the following parts, the point of view changes rather rapidly between the inside and finally also the outside view, the clients’ point of view on the clerk. Again the image-sound relation and the framing are very symbolic. Even though for the first time in the film, we are able to hear speech in sync and thus identify a client speaking directly to the clerk and (though without ever seeing lips move) also the clerk answering, then on and off the film lapses back to the more impersonal off-screen dialogue. This underlines the inhuman, alienated relation and conversation. The framing of the clerk is at the same time just as symbolic and disembodied as the client’s in the first part. What we see are hands filling out forms, hands sharpening a pencil, and not in one shot is it possible to establish a kind of direct eye contact between clerk and client. The film only shows facial shots of clerks looking to the side or down.

The third and last part of the film is even more explicit in its Kafkaesque view. It starts with the only completely silent sequence of the film. We see the clerk preparing her afternoon tea, and with the words, "Wait a moment," all the clients just wait in line, silent, while she drinks her tea. When the dialogue is resumed we are back in the completely random relation between dialogue and pictures: we see a series of different people in at the window, but none of them speak; the dialogue comes out of thin air and seems to live a life of its own. This aspect is gradually underlined and strengthened by intercuts from the deep backstage of the office, the archive. Here stacks of papers bulge from every shelf. First the shots from this archive come in very short sequences, like inserts in the ongoing images from the office. But gradually the archive files become the main character, so that human and social life become totally alienated and disembodied. Visually all human life disappears and is substituted by bureaucratic stacks of papers, and this visual metaphor is furthermore marked by sound manipulation.

Just before we enter the archive a particular, absurd kind of dialogue takes place in which the clerk states that in order to get a pension one must fill in a form where everything one has ever done in life, all of one’s jobs and places of work should be reported. These sentences are repeated again and again until the archive seems to echo these words. It is as if life is buried in these archives, trying to get out, but in vain. Instead, just before the end a door is slammed very hard and everything sort of closes down.

The documentary voices of Kieslowski
Kieslowski’s film The Office is a clever documentary film with a sharp but subdued political message and critique of a communist bureaucracy. The film doesn’t speak criticism but shows it indirectly through the whole montage and visual style and framing. On the surface this is just a report on and observation of Polish everyday life in the 60s, but in reality it is a death sentence for and burial of a society in which systems and procedures are superior to humans. But even though it is a specific, social critique of Poland in 1966 under communism, it is also a more general and existential portrait of bureaucracy at all times and in all kinds of societies.

The same kind of almost tongue-in-cheek strategy is found in a much stronger form in some of Kieslowski’s documentaries from the 70s. Most directly this can be seen in From a Night Porter’s Point of View, where the main character embodies the controlling, bureaucratic mentality of the system. What seems to be a neutral and even empathetic portrait at the beginning of the film gradually becomes the revelation of a more and more fanatic and cruel control freak. The concrete observational documentation of this porter who not only performs his control at work, but also expands his wish to control and suppress to all aspects of private life and leisure time, therefore becomes a symbol for a whole society and its ruling class. The lack of distance and explicit critique makes the film’s message even stronger and more shocking because the filmic identification process is used to create distance and dislike.

It is the same mechanism that gives us a really scary lesson in Curriculum Vitae, in which it is gradually revealed how far a real party committee is willing to go in its personal persecution of a fictionally constructed life story and person. What the film actually demonstrates is that the whole thing, also in the actual historical trials against people who did not submit completely to the system, was a more or less fictional construct.

A very strong documentary film from 1980 is Station (Dworzec); again, on one level this is a very lyrical and poetical observation of people coming and going at the central Station in Warsaw, people interested in ordinary things and each other, but at the same time it is a film demonstrating the ‘big brother’ tendencies of Polish society just nine years before the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. The film jumps between a big television screen in the waiting hall where the system addresses the people with obvious propaganda and constructed news, the surveillance cameras at the station, and everyday life. Just as in The Office, the observation of reality is visually and rhetorically organized in such a way that we clearly get the feeling of being completely controlled and suppressed. This is very strongly emphasized at the end of the film with sequences shot from the surveillance camera control room, the point of view of the anonymous ‘big brother.’

The visual, documentary strategy established in Kieslowski’s first student film is thus amazingly mature and finished and was basically used throughout a large part of his other documentary films between 1960-1980. However, there are other tendencies where the observational style is used to show people trying to cope with a completely hopeless system, people doing a job and trying to avoid being identified with the system. One example is The Mason (Murarz, 1973), told in the first person by one of the early communist pioneers from the Stalin era before 1956. He looks back on his bureaucratic party future with dismay and he goes back to his job as a mason. His story is ironically told as he attends a May 1 parade with all its bombastic rhetoric and symbolism celebrating the working class heroes while in fact promoting conformity and a ruling party class. An even better example is Hospital (Szpital, 1976), a very realistic portrait of life at a hospital where conditions are hopeless and can only be survived by black humor and commitment beyond belief. Here no symbolism is needed – the pictures of reality loudly speak for themselves.

All in all, Kieslowski's contribution to the modern documentary film tradition is as important and solid as his feature film production. There is a clear line from these narratives of reality to his often very realistic fiction, and there is a just as strong thematic continuity. Furthermore, the documentary voice is both very critical and social in its refined ways of getting the message through and at the same time symbolic and with general existential perspectives. They survive as visual expressions even though the reality on which they are built has long since changed, and the general aspects of their social message also make them a commentary on human conditions at all times.

to the top of the page


Stok, Danusia. Kieslowski on Kieslowski. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.

Insdorf, Anette. Double Lives, Second Chances. The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski. New York: Miramax Books, 1999.

Svendsen, Erik. Kieslowskis kunst. Randers: Frydenlund, 1996.

to the top of the page