By a customer
, 23 Jun 2008
Shot in 1981, this influential film by Krzysztof Kieslowski was subjected to years of censorship by the Polish authorities and did not become public property until the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. Kieslowski explores the role of chance, how seemingly innocuous decisions or events can change our lives. Witek is a fundamentally decent young man, studying medicine, who runs to catch a train. It seems as if his career and his future depend on him boarding the train, but Kieslowski replays the scenario three times. On each occasion, Witek experiences a different future: whether he catches the train or not, a different set of circumstances becomes a possibility and his fate is left in the hands of blind chance.
We are shown three possible futures for Witek - as Communist Party functionary, as Christian and political radical, or as an apolitical family man, content in his role as a doctor. Each of his options provides a commentary on the politics of Poland in the 1980's, most significantly in its reflection on the role of censorship and how ideas can shape our understanding of the world (and of ourselves).
Poland, of course, was rent with changes in the 1980's - as was the entire Soviet bloc. Where would it go as a nation, as a political entity? Kieslowski and his contemporaries were brought up in Marxist dialectical materialism, suggesting that there was an inevitability to the emerge and dominance of the Communist Party. So what role is played by chance? If the plot to assassinate Hitler had succeeded in 1944, Poland might have been liberated by Western armies and politicians, not Soviet ones.
The life of a single individual can be as random as that of Witek: we are only shown one moment in his life from which dramatic changes are sparked - the implication is that there can be infinite possibilities within a lifespan (we are told, for instance, that Witek is a twin, but that he alone survived birth). If an individual's life is open to blind chance, surely there can be no certainties in history, no inevitability that the Communist Party, or the Catholic Church, should rule Poland.
Marxist philosophy emphasises the role of duality - classically described as 'thesis' and 'antithesis', opposing forces clashing to provide a third, dynamic force of 'synthesis'. By rejecting the notion of duality, by emphasising that Witek has three possibilities, not two, Kieslowski is making a fundamental challenge to Communist doctrine. History is not predictable - it is random. Kieslowski would return to the theme of three choices in his "Three Colours" trilogy and in other areas of his work.
The film is firmly within the realist school of European film making - it is a fantasy about real life. The portrait he paints of his contemporary Poland is one stripped of glamour. This is a materially poor society, but one which is culturally and intellectually rich. People can make choices - they can uphold the State or they can oppose it ... or they can get on with their lives. What are the consequences of choice? What are the consequences of having no choice, of being simply the pawn of blind chance?
Kieslowski employs disorienting techniques - the camera takes the place of different characters during the production, putting you in the place of a number of the actors. How do we interpret the world? Are we just onlookers, or are we players? The director has the power to leave us as impassive members of the audience, or to elevate us to a temporary role as a participant in the film. Politicians have similar powers. And chance can strip us of self-determination and make us mere pawns.
A highly influential film, it is, perhaps, a slow starter. You do not really begin to engage with the characters until you appreciate that you are being shown the second of Witek's options; you do not really begin to understand the themes until you witness the third option and understand just how random chance can be. Kieslowski, himself, expressed dissatisfaction with the film, an opinion which defines his ability to be self-critical and to strive to push his art.
The extras provided on the DVD give valuable insight into his thinking, and into the role of the censor in political and artistic life, and make a significant contribution to your appreciation of the film. It's a film which can be viewed again and again: you lose nothing of your enjoyment in doing so - in fact a second or third viewing enhances your understanding, and will, perhaps, give you a taste for more of Kieslowski's work. A great European director, his films are essential (and thoroughly enjoyable) viewing for anyone with an interest in the cinema.
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