Kieslowski's Grey

Laurence Green

Much has been made, by critics and by Kieslowski himself, of the dramatic shift in Kieslowski's career in the early 1980s away from documentaries and towards fiction filmmaking. This late and definitive career shift makes Kieslowski a special case in the familiar trend of looking back at an artist's early works once s/he has secured widespread acclaim, and thus justifies taking this to the extreme of evaluating Kieslowski's student films, where there is plenty to impress.

Urzad is a remarkable little film and a textbook example of the unity of form and content. Edited with an officiousness that eloquently expresses the daily routine, the film seems to pile up helpless faces and bureaucratic requests with the same callous repetition that characterizes the tone of the faceless clerks. We do see their faces in fact, but the film's habit of repeatedly cutting away to shuffling papers, to the details of the official business going on, to the backs of heads, chiefly offers us glimpses of fragmented tasks, individuals, and lives.

A series of desperate and confused clients stand waiting behind the peep-hole barrier as the soundtrack keeps up a steady pace of absurdist jabber, but in fact, for such a short film, with so many cuts, there is still a surprising amount of waiting; while tea is made and pencils are sharpened, the line up is left at the mercy of policies and peons. Busy and lively editing seems a counterpoint to the inertia that greets virtually every administrative request essentially to insert square pegs into round holes. In the middle of the film, there are a few lines of synch dialogue in a couple of the exchanges between clerk and client, but for the most part the soundtrack consists of wild tracks freely cut to picture after the fashion of what might be called an impressionistic collage. What is important is not so much any loyalty to the linear stories of those who are being addressed, filed and discarded like loose papers, but rather loyalty to the project of capturing the impression of being in that office, of being efficiently processed or serviced with such frustrating and unproductive results. The clerks' efficiency keeps the film clipping along so quickly that when it finally settles on one character, a tall bald man, and returns to him for four shots, our sympathy for him seems emphasized and singled out in a unique way. But is he any different from the others?

In his final shot, this man glances at the camera briefly and bends the frame of the documentary. Up until this point, a viewer could easily assume that Urzad was almost entirely shot with a hidden camera. It epitomizes the purest form of observational documentary where one suspects that the only directorial manipulation of the action is through camera placement and editing no "creationism" or interventionist direction of the participants seems likely. Nonetheless, Kieslowski still seems compelled to humbly and honestly draw attention to the filmmaking process when the eyes of this one character fall on the lens, and consequently grant the director 'permission' to assert his authorial voice. As a result, the final sequence of Urzad drives home the film's theme with deft double entendre: the stacks of files both attest to how the clerks would answer "what have you done all your life?" and offer a kind of crowded cemetery where the sum total of people's lives amount not to headstones, but to shelf after shelf of lifetimes stored in forms, facts and dotted lines. It is the dates and appointments of the depersonalized curriculum vitae that round out a life, rather than the epitaph, or any more expressive summary.

Because of the close-ups of hands recording facts and exchanging documents, Urzad seems to somehow anticipate Kieslowski's legendary choice to "escape from documentary" as well as his subsequent departure from filmmaking altogether. In Danusia Stok's interview, Kieslowski relates:

There was a necessity, a need which was very exciting for us to describe the world. We tried to describe this world and it was fascinating to describe something that hadn't been described yet. It's a feeling of bringing something to life... if we start describing something, we bring it to life...

[But] Not everything can be described. That's the documentary's great problem. It catches itself as if in its own trap.[1]

Urzad is very much a film about the mundane, the everyday, and recreates this with Kieslowski's described vitality. But, if the film is criticizing all the bureaucratic records for failing to adequately contain or express, with their "yes" or "no" answers, the complexity of an individual's life, is the film saying anything about the success of documentary film itself in terms of measuring up to this task? Is this the "trap" in Urzad? Unlike the clerk's questionnaire, it is not the prerogative of this film to sum up anyone's life, but since the film explicitly challenges the assumption that these shelves full of file folders are effective repositories for capturing a life lived, what medium is it offering as an alternative? It seems to me, particularly in light of Kieslowski's later remarks, that there is something in Urzad that is suggestive of this implicit evaluation of film's potential as a medium to rise to such a challenge. In a sense, after Urzad, Kieslowski spent two careers, in Poland and then in France, trying to answer this question.

While the former Eastern bloc countries seem to represent the extreme of Kafkaesque officialese, the rest of the world is no stranger to the kind of bureaucratic agony depicted in Urzad. As a film production instructor, I have to admit I was heartened to see a student work so dedicated to the purity of its documentary form while at the same time concerned with offering a social message of arguably universal proportions. So few of the students I encounter are interested in speaking to such grandiose topics as social commentary or the human condition. Their work barely rises out of the university milieu in its focus, and only the best of it hints at the level of self-critique in Kieslowski's short. Add to this that the documentary is so polluted by fiction filmmaking techniques, journalistic ethics and now manipulative reality TV practices, that watching people being themselves instead of seeing characters playing themselves has become a rare treat.

This, ultimately, is both the appeal and dilemma of every great documentary: the alluring realism that leads us to conclude we've witnessed some kind of "truth" about a character or life, at odds with the nagging questions about just what dubious means the documentarian used or constructed to lead us to those ends. Whether Urzad is deceptively simple or simply effective, it remains a compact and impressive indictment of slow and senseless bureaucracy, which in many ways seems only to have worsened over the intervening decades and prompted diagnoses of "rage" variants rather than the quiet patience exhibited by Kieslowski's Poles. From our overly litigious present, it is tempting to ponder Kieslowski's own odyssey through obstacles of paperwork and permissions to secure the access for shooting Urzad in the first place.

1 Danusia Stok, ed. Kieslowski on Kieslowski (London: Faber & Faber, 1993), pp. 54-55, 86.

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