P.O.V. No.22 - On Documentary Film

On Kieslowski's Urzad/The Office

Richard Raskin
Direction and screenplay
Production manager
Production company
Academic advisors

Other data
Krzysztof Kieslowski
Lechoslaw Trzesowski
Janina Grosicka
Marta Stankiewicz
Tadeusz Lubczynski
Lodz Film School, Poland - PWSTiF
Jerzy Bossak, Kazimierz Karabasz,
Kurt Weber

b/w, 35 mm, 5 min. 31 sec., 1966
Availability Urzad is included as bonus material on the Artificial Eye DVD of No End.
Synopsis [1] A very interesting attempt to go beyond imposed filmic and social schemas. Shot with a hidden camera at the counter of the (state-owned) Social Security office, this satire on bureaucracy and clerical soullessness is right on target. A queue forms in front of the counter window and the clerk repeats the question: "What have you done in your lifetime?" Image and original sound have an equal dramaturgical function.

The stills from Krzysztof Kieslowski's Urzad appearing in this article are reproduced with the kind permission of the National Film, Television and Theatre School in Lódz (PWSFTviT). Lechoslaw Trzesowski was the cinematographer of this documentary film.


Urzad was Kieslowski's second film, made when he was 25 and still a student at the Lódz Film School (his first film being The Tram, also made in 1966 and also about five minutes long). Despite its extraordinary qualities, Urzad is often overlooked in discussions of Kieslowski's films. Even the director himself makes no mention of it in the interviews that were the basis for Kieslowski on Kieslowski, ed. Danusia Stok (London/Boston: Faber and Faber, 1993). And Urzad was not included in the recently issued DVD set of Kieslowski's documentaries. [2]

To date only two scholarly articles have, to my knowledge, been devoted to Urzad, and both were published in this journal: Ib Bondebjerg, "A Visual Kafka in Poland;" [3] and Laurence Green, "Kieslowski's Grey."[4] Both are excellent pieces, and Bondebjerg's study also includes a detailed breakdown of the film into its three main sections.

The present discussion will supplement those articles by focusing on production issues relating to the shoot, some additional thoughts on the disjunction of sound and image, several interpretive para- meters, and the running time of Urzad.

The shoot
The shooting of Urzad was carried out on the basis of a scenario Kieslowski had written, as indicated in the final credits. And this would be consistent with a statement he made in connection with Hospital (1976), and which presumably applies to Urzad as well:

In those days we had to write scripts for documentary films - quite rightly so. You never know what's going to happen in a film but thanks to the fact that we were forced to write a script, we were compelled to put our thoughts into some sort of order. [5]

The boundaries between documentary and fiction are not as sharp as was once believed, and even documentaries which strive to be utterly faithful to the subjects they present generally involve some degree of staging rather than simply recording what is there.

In an illuminating discussion of First Love (1974), Kieslowski explained to what degree manipulation, prompting and the preparation of camera set-ups and lighting for specific shots were all necessary for the production of this documentary. For example, concerning the young couple in First Love, Kieslowski stated:

I wanted them to read a book called something like Young Mother or The Developing Foetus. So I bought them the book and then waited for them to read and discuss it. These situations were clearly manipulated (Kieslowski on Kieslowski, p. 64).

On the other hand, he also pointed out:

…I had to manipulate the couple into situations in which they'd find themselves anyway […]. I don't think I ever put them in a situation in which they wouldn't have found themselves if the camera hadn't been there (p. 64, emphasis added).

In Urzad, the camera had to be visibly positioned in advance for shots of a clerk sharpening a pencil or inserting the plug of her electric kettle into a wall-socket, and then brewing and drinking tea. No hidden camera was used for these and other bits of action that had to be carefully arranged for filming, and carried out with the knowledge and consent of a cooperative office staff. But though agreed upon in advance with the director, these are presumably things the clerks would have done anyway, even if the camera were not filming them, though the clerks were not necessarily aware of the purpose these shots would serve in the documentary: to show them concerning themselves with their own practical needs while their clients are put on hold. When the tea is sipped, the clients have been told "Please wait" and are then allowed to stand around in silence for a substantial amount of screen time (over thirty seconds), corresponding to considerably more story time.

The pencil and tea shots described above were not the only ones made with the camera in full view. While the clients are waiting for the clerks to finish their tea, one elderly man looks right into the lens, and as Laurence Green has pointed out, "Up until this point, a viewer could easily assume that Urzad was almost entirely shot with a hidden camera" (op. cit., p. 86). So the claim in the synopsis quoted at the start of this article, that Urzad was shot with a hidden camera, should be taken with a grain of salt.

While some of the action was necessarily arranged, the recorded voices heard in the film were undoubtedly authentic in the fullest sense of that term. On the other hand, Kieslowski certainly knew in advance what kinds of exchanges he was looking for and there is no way for us to know whether those selected for inclusion in the film were the only kind recorded during the shoot.

The disjunction of sound and image
One of the striking features of Urzad is that few spoken lines are accompanied by synchronous images of the person speaking or the person listening.

Nowhere in the film is this more evident than in the final sequence, filling approximately the last minute of the film, and which might be represented as follows:


Please. I've just left the hospital.
When will I get the pension?
I'm without means.

You can apply now.
Complete the form.
State what you have done...
CLERK (cont.)

...in your lifetime. Give all the dates and state
where you worked.

have no documents.

Give all the dates and state where you worked.
All questions must be answered 'yes'
or 'no'. State what you have done...
...throughout your lifetime.
State what you have done
throughout your lifetime.
...throughout your lifetime.
...what you have done throughout your lifetime.
...throughout your lifetime.

Of these thirteen shots, seen for the most part while we hear the female clerk instructing a series of clients as to how to fill out their pension applications, four of the shots show clients apparently waiting their turn at the window separating them from the clerk, while the other nine images are of countless case folders gathering dust on storeroom shelves. The repeated juxtaposition of the order to "state what you have done throughout your lifetime" with the dreary images showing where those applications will end up, enables Kieslowski to make the point that the system portrayed in his film reduces peoples' lives to painstaking exercises in futility.

Kieslowski's choice to disjoin visual and auditory elements from one another as they were in their original relationship, might be seen in several different perspectives, one of which has not been previously described and which involves a positioning the viewer in two different spaces simultaneously - for example, both in the archive room (visually) and at the counter window (auditively), thereby enriching the viewer's experience by making it multi-layered. It also gives the viewer an opportunity to make his or her own connections between what is said and what is seen, as a step toward constructing a meaning for the film as a whole. In this way, the film is unusually rich in subtext, due not only to the resonances of the individual spoken and visual elements in themselves but also to the disjunctive relationship between those elements. Further contributing to this richness of subtext is the absence of any guiding commentary addressed to the viewer and telling him or her how to understand what is going on.

Some interpretive parameters
Kieslowski himself once proposed what may be a rather narrowly literal understanding of Urzad when he stated in an otherwise ambitious tone:

…perhaps we were the first post-war generation […] who tried to describe the world as it is. We show only micro-worlds. The titles suggest this: The School, The Factory, The Hospital or The Office. If these mini-observations were pieced together, they would describe life in Poland. [6]

This seems to suggest that Urzad represents, not Polish society as a whole, but only one of its constituent "micro-worlds," and that solely in their aggregate do the films mentioned describe Polish life at the time.

An interpretation I would consider too broad in another respect is Joseph G. Kickasola's characterization of "the shelves jammed with documents and files" as "a remarkable synecdoche of bureaucratic chaos." [7]

Other commentators have suggested interpretations that are both comprehensive and specific, viewing the office in which people are methodically worn down and maintained in a state of powerlessness and intimidation, as a representation of the Polish social system as a whole in 1966. For Ib Bondebjerg for example, the film expresses "the total alienation of people in this society" (op. cit., p. 77) and Urzad is in and of itself a devastating critique of an entire political system:

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 (p. 80).

Another factor that might be taken into account when considering the full scope of this little film is the generational difference between client and clerk. Most of the clients are naturally in their sixties or older and their aging and at times almost caricatural faces have a quality that apparently fascinated Kieslowski, who stated in another context:

I loved taking photographs. And all the time the subjects were old people, contorted people staring out into the distance, dreaming or thinking of how it could have been, yet reconciled to how things were. [8]

There are two female clerks in the office: one with lighter, curly hair, and wearing glasses and a short-sleeved blouse - she is seen only in profile or from behind; the other with straight dark hair, no glasses and wearing a long-sleeved sweater - seen in several frontal shots. At least judging from the images we have of them, both clerks are considerably younger than their clients.

What we have then is a power relationship in which older people, who have lived through two world wars, suffered hardships and deprivations of various kinds, and are presently in need, unsure of themselves and vulnerable, are ordered about by younger clerks who appear to be quite comfortable in their roles. The generational difference makes the condescending treatment of the clients appear even more heartless and lacking in respect than it otherwise might.

Running time
Considering how much is told in this film about life in Poland in 1966 and the richness of the viewer's experience at every moment of Urzad, a running time of under six minutes is extraordinary.

Kieslowski may have learned the importance of economy in documentary storytelling from his film school mentor, Kazimierz Karabasz. For Kieslowski, Kabarasz showed the way in making documentaries running ten minutes or less, and which told their stories with remarkable precision and density, in stark contrast to documentaries made during the same period (1959-1968) by established filmmakers outside of Poland and which Kieslowski found endlessly drawn out and boring. [9]

This is indeed food for thought for those who assume a priori that in order to deal with a complex subject with any depth, nuance or authority, a documentary has to have at least the length of a feature film.

1 This synopsis appears on a number of websites, including
http://www.polishculture-nyc.org/kieslowski_documents.htm and
As will soon be argued, Urzad could not have been shot entirely with a hidden camera.

2 Vibeke Sperling, "Kieslowski som dokumentarist," Politiken, Aug. 20, 2006, sect. 2, p. 4.

3 p.o.v. - A Danish Journal of Film Studies, no. 13 (March 2002), pp. 75-83; accessible at http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_13/section_3/artc2A.html

4 p.o.v. - A Danish Journal of Film Studies, no. 13 (March 2002), pp. 85-88; accessible at http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_13/section_3/artc3A.html

5 "The Unique Role of Documentaries," Kieslowski on Kieslowski (op. cit.), p. 69.

6 Krzysztof Wierzbicki's film, I'm So-So (1995), cited by Marek Haltof in The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski. Variations on Destiny and Chance (London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2004), p. 5.

7 The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski. The Liminal Image (New York & London: Continuum, 2004), p. 95.

8 Kieslowski on Kieslowski (op. cit.), p. 45.

9 "Pour moi la personne la plus importante à l'École était Kazimerz Karabasz. Aujourd'hui je sais que nulle part dans le monde entier on ne faisait d'aussi remarquables films documentaires, montés avec une aussi grande précision qu'en Pologne dans les années 1959-68. De bonnes prises de vues, un montage intelligent, de la densité. Les grands du documentaire à l'étranger racontaient des histoires exagérément étendues dans le temps, ennuyeuses. Ici dans des pilules de quelques minutes - une dizaine au plus - j'ai vu quelque chose de merveilleusement construit. Karabasz était comme une indication divine, un doigt qui indique la direction." (Krzysztof Kieslowski [dans:] "Filmówka") http://www.culture.pl/fr/culture/artykuly/dz_urzad_kieslowski

Literature and relevant websites:

Bondebjerg, Ib. "A Visual Kafka in Poland," p.o.v. - A Danish Journal of Film Studies, no. 13 (March 2002), pp. 75-83.


Green, Laurence. "Kieslowski's Grey," p.o.v. - A Danish Journal of Film Studies, no. 13 (March 2002), pp. 85-88.


Haltof, Marek. The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski. Variations on Destiny and Chance. London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2004.

Kickasola, Joseph G. The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski. The Liminal Image. New York & London: Continuum, 2004.

Sperling, Vibeke. "Kieslowski som dokumentarist." Politiken, 20 Aug. 2006, sec. 2, p. 4.

Stok, Danusia (ed.). Kieslowski on Kieslowski. London & Boston: Faber & Faber, 1993.

Svendsen, Erik. Kieslowski's Kunst. Copenhagen: Frydenlund, 1996.





Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996)

1966:The Tram (Tramwaj), The Office (Urzad)
1967:Concert of Requests (Koncert zyczen)
1968:The Photograph (Zdjecie)
1969:From the City of Lodz (Z miasta Lodzi),
1970:I Was a Soldier (Bylem zolnierzem), Factory (Fabryka)
1971:Before the Rally (Przed Rajdem)
1972:Refrain (Refren)
Between Wroclaw and Zielona Gora (Miedzy Wroclawiem a Zielona Gora) ,
The Principles of Safety and Hygiene in a Copper Mine (Podstawy BHP w ´+ kopalni miedzi)
Workers '71: nothing about us without us (Robotnicy '71: Nic o nas bez nas)
1973:Bricklayer (Murarz)
Pedestrian Subway (Przejscie podziemne)
1974:X-Ray (Przeswietlenie) ,
First Love (Pierwsza milosc)
1975:Curriculum Vitae (Zyciorys)
1976:Hospital (Szpital)
Slate (Klaps)
1977:From a Night Porter's Point of View (Z punktu widzenia nocnego portiera) ,
I Don't Know (Nie wiem)
1978:Seven Women of Different Ages (Siedem kobiet w roznym wieku)
1980:Station (Dworzec)
Talking Heads (Gadajace glowy)
1988:Seven Days a Week (Siedem dni w tygodniu)
1975:Personnel (Personel)
The Scar (Blizna)
1976:The Calm (Spokoj) ,
1979:Camera Buff (Amator)
1981:Blind Chance (Przypadek)
Short Working Day (Krotki dzien pracy)
1984:No End (Bez konca)
1988:Decalogue (10 films, each 52 min. in length, including two cinema versions:
A Short Film about Killing
A Short Film about Love
1991:La Double Vie de Véronique
1993/94:Trois couleurs:
Bleu, Blanc, Rouge

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