Monday, March 17, 2008

CUNY Love for Kieslowski

Best known for his visually striking Trois Couleurs trilogy, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski was not considered a political filmmaker, per se. However, as seen as part of a current retrospective series on CUNY TV’s City Cinematheque, his early films do reflect the current Polish political realities of their time in subtle, oblique ways.

Camera Buff (1979) is considered a somewhat light-hearted film, at least by Kieslowski’s standards. However, there is still plenty of drama and even tragedy for his working class characters. Filip is an ordinary factory worker given an 8mm camera as a present upon the birth of his daughter. He is subsequently hired by his boss to record the plant’s anniversary celebration. It sets in motion a passion for amateur filmmaking which suggests parallels with professional filmmaking under the auspices of the Polish state authorities. Even on that first assignment he learns how touchy things can get when you start pointing a camera around a Communist country. His boss tells him: “There’s a guy with glasses . . . We need to see him less . . . Or better still, not at all.”

The other two Kieslowski films recently aired on CUNY-TV deal with political issues a bit more explicitly. The Scar (1976) tells an industrial story similar to Trace of Stones, in which the state planning process is exposed as inefficient and incompetent. Despite the protests of the local community, a massive factory project is planned for a depressed province. We hear the arrogant local party boss sneer at “those who lecture us on the beauty of nature” and we see the clear-cutting of forests to make way for progress. Bednarz, a basically decent manager is called in to oversee, but the project is arguably dangerous and certainly doomed to failure.

No End (1985) is set during, and is a direct product of, the early 1980’s Martial Law. Attorney Antek Zyro’s ghost looms over his wife as she mourns his loss. She meets with the wife of an imprisoned Solidarity organizer Zyro was defending, yet she does not make a deep connection. Zyro’s former mentor takes over his case, but it seems his ghost is concerned his former mentor will be too willing to betray his client’s principles for the sake of his defense. Indeed, the elderly advocate eventually cuts a deal with a bogus union established to shill for the government. While we are clearly meant to identify with the plight of Solidarity supporters, Kieslowski does not to belabor the point. No End is actually quite effective for portraying desperation as an everyday reality and therefore not at all extraordinary.

The CUNY series continues with two more films. So far, it has also featured some of CUNY’s more insightful post-film commentary, coming in two cases from former Polish filmmaking colleagues. The next installment will be Blind Chance, a sort of precursor to Sliding Doors, which was banned by the Communist government for five years—always a promising indication of quality. It runs on Saturday and Sunday at nine o’clock. No End also repeats Friday at midnight and past installments often re-run at odd times during the week.