‘Memoirs of an Angel’: A Passionate Documentary Tribute to the Greatest Poet of the Art of Film

Twenty years have passed since the untimely departure of Krzysztof Kieślowski, the poet of modern cinema and the embodiment of cinematic passion and creativity who will forever remain our principal source of never-ceasing inspiration. To commemorate such an important date, the gals and guys at the Edinburgh-based charitable trust BandB composed a fascinating 77-minute-long tribute documentary dedicated to the life and work of Kieślowski. The video was published through the organization’s IsuruFoundation Vimeo account, and the fact this project caught our eyes truly made our day. This remarkable tribute was made as a recycled collage of existing footage on the subject, comprised of archive footage from workshops, documentaries and even unforgettable parts of Kieślowski’s beautiful films. The authors have put a lot of work into the film in order to remind us all of Kieślowski’s artistic significance and technical brilliance, and even though many would say his greatness can never be truly forgotten, it really doesn’t hurt to enjoy such a craftily composed passionate reminder that simply radiates with love for the art of film. Writing about Kieślowski in one of our earlier posts, we stated he is actually responsible for the change in the way we approached, watched and felt movies, and it’s a huge compliment that doesn’t even begin to explain the enormous role he played in our film education and appreciation. Do yourself a favor and watch Memoirs of an Angel, and then go back and watch the films that made Kieślowski the legend he is.

Despite the fact that most remember him for the fictitious feature works of art of the second phase of his career, Kieślowski actually started out as a documentary filmmaker. Although stern in style and straightforward in composition, these movies deal with what’s always at the center of Kieślowski’s spotlight, the human condition. The Office, for example, explores how people’s lives are reduced to stacks of paperwork, while Factory counterposes the comfortable daily routine of the directorial staff of a factory with the factory workers, the little people grinding away on the main floor for hours and hours. Seven Women of Different Ages focuses on various ballerinas in training, and in Hospital you get to follow doctors through their 24-hour shifts of treating human bodies like huge bags of meat. None of his documentary films leaves such an impact, however, as his 1980 project called Talking Heads. For this occasion, Kieślowski interviewed people of all ages, asking them the tricky questions of “Who are you?” and “What do you want?,” thus creating an invaluable and touching portrait of Poland and its people of that specific period in time.

KIESLOWSKI ON KIESLOWSKI

An excerpt from ‘Kieslowski on Kieslowski’ (Directors on Directors) by Krzysztof Kieślowski, Danusia Stok (Editor). Published April 13th 1995 by Faber & Faber (first published 1993).

“I don’t like the word ‘success,’ and I always fiercely defend myself against it, because I don’t know what the word means at all. For me, success means attaining something I’d really like. That’s success. And what I’d really like is probably unattainable, so I don’t look at things in these terms. Of course, the recognition I have won, to a certain or even large extent, satisfies an ambition which every film-maker has. I’m certainly ambitious and no doubt I behave the way I do through ambition. There’s absolutely no doubt about that. But that’s got nothing to do with success. That’s very far from success.

On the one hand, my ambition’s satisfied. Yet, on the other hand, recognition only helps you to satisfy ambition because it’ll never be completely satisfied. You can’t ever completely satisfy ambition. The more ambitious you are, the more impossible it is to satisfy your ambition. Recognition makes certain things easier which is very good in resolving everyday matters. Obviously it’s better if you can find money easily rather than if you have to fight for it. The same goes for actors or anything else you might think of. But, at the same time, I’m not sure that making things easier is a good thing in itself. I’m not sure whether it isn’t better if things are difficult. I’m not sure if it’s not better to suffer than not to suffer. I think it’s sometimes better to suffer. Everybody ought to go through it. That’s what makes us. That’s what makes human nature. If you’ve got an easy life then there’s no reason for you to care about anybody else. I think that in order really to care about yourself, and particularly somebody else, you’ve got to experience suffering and really understand what it is to suffer, so that you hurt and understand what it is to hurt. Because if you don’t understand what pain is, you won’t understand what it is not to be in pain and you won’t appreciate this lack of pain.

I’ll never tell you about the time I suffered most; nor will I tell anybody. It’s what’s most painful and most hidden. So, first of all, I don’t talk about it and, secondly, I very rarely admit it to myself, although it probably does emerge somewhere. No doubt, it comes out somewhere and you could find it, if you really wanted to.

Of course I feel I’m running away but that doesn’t bother me. Sometimes, if you want to survive, you have to run away. I think I escaped from the Polish situation too late. I think that I allowed myself to be needlessly taken in yet again in 1980. I needlessly suffered yet another blow. I should have realized and run away much sooner. Unfortunately, I was too foolish.

Generally speaking, you run away from yourself, or from what you think you are. It hasn’t caused me any problems, to be honest. Isolation hasn’t caused me any problems either because, like everybody else, I think I’m the one who’s right and not everybody else, whatever their reasons. And to this day I’m convinced I was right. The only thing I did wrong and foolishly, was to have turned away from it all so late. But that’s the way it was meant to be, no doubt.

There are many reasons why America doesn’t attract me. First, I don’t like America. It’s too big. There are too many people. Everybody runs around too quickly. There’s too much commotion, too much uproar. Everybody pretends too hard that they’re happy there. But I don’t believe in their happiness, I think they’re just as unhappy as we are, except that we still talk about it sometimes but they only say that everything’s fine, that it’s fantastic. It gets on my nerves on a day-to-day basis, and unfortunately directing is life on a day-to-day basis. You have to spend half a year in a place, in a country, in order to do something. And if I were to be confronted for a whole year with people saying that everything’s fantastic then I simply couldn’t stand it.

When Americans asked me ‘How are you?,’ I said ‘So-so.’ They probably thought somebody in my family had died. But I simply had jet lag because I’d been flying for seven hours and didn’t feel particularly well. But it was enough for me to say ‘So-so’ and they immediately thought that something tragic had happened. You can’t say ‘So-so.’ You have to say ‘Well’ or ‘Very well.’ The most optimistic thing I can say is ‘I’m still alive.’ So I’m not cut out for America for that reason. Second, they don’t allow directors into the cutting-room—at least not in the big studios. The director directs the film; that’s his job. There, one person writes the script, another directs and yet another edits. No doubt, one day I’ll direct somebody else’s script because it’ll be much better than my own, and far more beautiful and clever. But I’ll certainly never give up editing. So I can’t go to America for that reason either. Of course, I can’t go to America because they don’t allow cigarettes, so there certainly are enough reasons for my not being attracted to America.

I’m afraid of America. Whenever I’m in New York I always have the feeling that it’s going to cave in and all I can think about is how to avoid being there when that happens. The same goes for other places in America. You don’t get all those people and all that noise in the streets of California as you do in New York but, in turn, there’s a huge number of cars going to and fro and I always have serious doubts as to whether there are any Americans inside. You know, who’s inside? I’ve always got the impression that those cars drive themselves. So I’m simply frightened of that country, and I always have the feeling that I’m on the defensive when I arrive there. I’ve even been to small provincial places there and I’m still frightened and always escape. I close myself in. I simply run away to my hotel, and usually sleep, if I manage to get to sleep, that is—I don’t fall asleep as easily as I used to. But if I manage to fall asleep, that’s what I do.

I had this adventure. It was silly really. I was hurrying to some screening. I think it was the first screening I had at the New York Festival. No End, I think it was, in 1984 or 1985. I was in a terrible hurry. I got into a taxi. It was raining. The taxi-driver hit a cyclist. My journey took me through Central Park. It’s like Hyde Park in London where the roads cut across except that in Hyde Park everything is on one level while in Central Park the roads are lower down, not in a tunnel but a sort of gully. Well, that’s where my taxi-driver knocked over a cyclist. It was dusk already or even dark. No, it was dusk. Raining. And he simply hit him. The cyclist jumped off and fell and the taxi-driver ran over the bike. He simply ran over the bike. The road’s narrow there; that is, one line of cars can go in one direction and one line in the other, no more. The cars there are terribly big and wide so maybe two French cars would fit but only one American. Well, when he knocked over the cyclist, he stopped, and got out. We started to help the cyclist up. I also helped, because he was lying there with his leg bleeding. Well, car horns started beeping. An enormous river of cars had stopped behind us. A gigantic traffic jam, a couple of miles long, had formed. And they started to beep their horns and flash their lights and shout and beep and so on and so on.

Since it was literally five minutes before the time I was to appear at the Lincoln Center, I gave the guy what I owed him, five or six dollars, I can’t remember exactly how much, and I started to run. You can guess what the taxi-drivers coming up in the opposite direction thought. A taxi’s standing and some guy is running away from it. Of course they thought that I’d done something to the driver. Mugged him, robbed him, killed him or something. I ran like hell because, on top of that, it was raining and I wanted to save my suit from becoming soaked before I reached the Lincoln Center. So I pelted along. I saw the taxis coming to a halt in the opposite direction, and they started signalling. Guys jumped out of the taxis. I simply started to run away, I started to run away from them, not to the Lincoln Center any more but away from them. I started to climb up the sides of the gully, jumped into the park but it turned out that there were taxi-drivers standing in front of the gully, too, and they’d also noticed a taxi and this guy running away. So they simply started chasing me through Central Park with these great big baseball bats. You know, those huge, long sticks. You get it with one of those and your skull’s cracked open. And I saw the guys waving these sticks above the cars and chasing me across Central Park in their cars. I barely escaped. The trees were pretty dense there and they couldn’t get through with their cars; that’s the only reason why I escaped. Covered in mud, I went and explained at the Lincoln Center why I was late—I was five or ten minutes late. But that’s not why I don’t like America. That was just an amusing adventure.

That’s what comedy’s about, I reckon. You have to put the character in a situation which wouldn’t be funny if you were in it yourself, but when you look at it from the outside, it’s terribly funny. I don’t make comedies like the ones which used to be made with comedians such as de Funes, for example, but I have made a comic film.

There are many films I regret not having made, but it wasn’t my fault. The films simply didn’t get made for various reasons. I had various ideas or scripts, for example, which I never realized. There are a lot of documentaries which I wanted to make but didn’t, but that’s not true of full-length features. Maybe there is one I didn’t make; however, I’ve made all the ones I’ve written. I don’t have any drawer full of scripts which I dream of making but haven’t been able to make for various reasons. There’s nothing like that. I don’t have any scripts which I wrote and never made; except one that was written fifteen years ago.

At one stage, for example, I wanted to make a film with Jacek Kaczmarski, who sang beautiful songs. He once played a very small role in Blind Chance. He now works in Munich. I once thought that he was somebody who should have a film written for him; that is, a role written for him. He had so much energy, so much strength; there was so much truth in the way he behaved, yet so much discretion, too. A film should absolutely have been written for him, but I didn’t write it. To be honest, I couldn’t write it because he left the country and never came back. Now he’s an elderly gentleman, not the Jacek Kaczmarski he’d once been.

One of the documentaries I wanted to film—and I think if I had done, it would be very useful now—was of various long talks with politicians who have since died; with Communists, that is. I submitted the subject to the State Documentary Film Studios (WFD) proposing between twenty or thirty hours of interviews with Gomutka, Cyrankiewicz, Moczar. And I must say that the Studios even started making moves in that direction and probably managed to get hold of some of these people, but they didn’t get an agreement. That was in the mid 1970s, after Workers ’71. I thought that something really had to be recorded on film about these people. Just talking heads, nothing else. Not to do anything else at all. I even proposed that we make the film and hide it in the archives without showing it to anybody. Simply keep it in the archives as a historical document. I suspect those people might have said something, some truth, if I’d have been clever.

There were many documentaries which I didn’t make. I managed to put a few of them into Camera Buff. The film buff makes them as amateur films. A documentary about pavements, or about a dwarf. Filip makes them.

I think that I made a few films completely unnecessarily, both documentaries and full features. I don’t know why I made them any more. One such film is The Scar. I think I must have made it because I wanted to make a film. That’s the greatest sin a director can commit; to make a film simply because he wants to make a film. You have to want to make a film for other reasons—to say something, to tell a story, to show somebody’s fate—but you can’t want to make a film simply for the sake of it. I think that was my biggest mistake—that I made films I no longer know why I made. While I was making them I told myself I knew why but I don’t think I really believed that. I made them simply for the sake of making them. Another such completely unnecessary film was Short Working Day. I’ve absolutely no idea why I made it. I made a lot of unnecessary documentaries, too.

Another mistake was that I realized too late that I had to move as far away from the world of politics as possible. As far away as possible so that there’s no sign of it even in the background of my films. Of course, you could, no doubt, call my going to film school the biggest mistake I ever made.

The film industry is in a bad condition the whole world over. It’s very nice to celebrate a silver wedding but it’s good only if the married couple feel well, still love each other, want to kiss or go to bed with each other, but it’s bad if the couple have had just about as much as they can take and aren’t interested in each other any more. And that is more or less what’s happened with the film industry; the industry’s not interested in the public and the public, in turn, is less and less interested in film.

But it has to be said, we don’t give the public much of a chance. Apart from the Americans, of course. They care for the public’s interests because they care about their wallets; so that’s a different sort of caring really. What I’m thinking of is caring also for the audience’s spiritual life. Maybe that’s too strong a word but something which is a little more than just box-office. The Americans take excellent care of the box-office. And while doing so they make the best, or some of the best, films in the world anyway, also on the spiritual level. But I reckon that this realm of higher needs, of something more than just forgetting about everyday life, of mere recreation, this realm of needs has been clearly neglected by us. So the public’s turned away from us because they don’t feel we’re taking care of them. Maybe these needs are disappearing. But I willingly take part of the blame myself as director.

I don’t know whether I’ve ever watched a film I’ve made. I once went in to a screening for a moment during some festival, in Holland I think it was. But that was for just a few minutes when I went in to see whether Personnel had aged. I decided it had aged a bit and left. I never watched any film of mine after that.

The audiences I like most are those who say that the film’s about them, or those who say that it meant something to them, those for whom the film has changed something. I met a woman in a street in Berlin who recognized me because A Short Film about Love was being publicized at the time. This woman recognized me and started crying. She was fifty. She thanked me profusely because she had had a conflict with her daughter for a good many years; they weren’t talking to each other although they were sharing a flat. The daughter was nineteen at the time. The woman told me that she and her daughter hadn’t spoken for five or six years, apart from informing each other about where the keys were or that there was no butter or what time they’d be home. The previous day, they’d been to see my film and the daughter kissed her mother for the first time in five or six years. No doubt they’ll quarrel tomorrow again and in two days’ time this’ll mean nothing to them; but if they felt better for five minutes—or at least the older woman felt better—then that’s enough. It’s worth making the film for those five minutes. The daughter had probably been in conflict with her mother for some reason and that reason lurked somewhere in the contents of A Short Film about Love. And when they saw the film together, the daughter or older woman probably understood what had been the real reason for the conflict, and the daughter kissed her mother. It was worth making the film for that kiss, for that one woman.

Many people, after seeing A Short Film about Killing, asked me: ‘How do you know that that’s what it’s like?’ Similarly, I got a lot of letters after Camera Buff from people asking, ‘How do you know what it’s like to be a film buff? It’s a film about me. You made a film about me.’ Or, ‘You’ve plagiarized my life. Where do you know me from?’ I got a lot of letters like that, after many of my films. The same thing happened after A Short Film about Love. I got a letter from a boy who claims that the film’s taken from his life. There’s something very pleasant when you make something without really knowing exactly how it’ll go—because you never really know—and then it turns out that you’ve hit on somebody’s fate.

Or take this girl, for example. At a meeting just outside Paris, a fifteen-year-old girl came up to me and said that she’d been to see Véronique. She’d gone once, twice, three times and only wanted to say one thing really—that she realized that there is such a thing as a soul. She hadn’t known before, but now she knew that the soul does exist. There’s something very beautiful in that. It was worth making Véronique for that girl. It was worth working for a year, sacrificing all that money, energy, time, patience, torturing yourself, killing yourself, taking thousands of decisions, so that one young girl in Paris should realize that there is such a thing as a soul. It’s worth it. These are the best viewers. There aren’t many of them but perhaps there are a few.” —Krzysztof Kieślowski

KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI: I’M SO-SO

“Less than a year before his death, Kieslowski, agreed to be the subject of a short documentary by his long-time assistant, Krzysztof Wierzbicki. The hour long film, which was made for Danish television, featured Kieslowski’s recollections of his life and movies, along with several candid shots of the director relaxing and enjoying his retirement. What was initially intended as a fairly inconsequential interview unwittingly turned into a remarkable tribute. The title comes from Kieslowski’s belief that people should not lie about how they’re feeling just for the sake of polite conversation. As a result, when someone asks him how he’s doing, instead of replying ‘Well’ or ‘Very well,’ he says ‘I’m so-so.’ In truth, however, there’s nothing ‘so-so’ about this particular motion picture. Krzysztof Kieslowski: I’m So-So is a striking picture of an extraordinary man who made some of the most powerful films of the last two decades. This movie will live alongside the director’s body of work as an important and informative companion piece.” —James Berardinelli

 

SIX ACTORS IN SEACH OF A DIRECTOR

In the summer of 1994 Kieślowski gave a workshop in Amsterdam for young directors. The theme of the workshop was the direction of actors. For a fortnight, various groups worked every day on a scene from Ingmar Bergman’s screenplay for Scenes from a Marriage. The sessions with the directors Leif Magnusson and Francesco Ranieri Martinotti were filmed for the documentary, and an interview with Kieślowski was filmed before the sessions. The workshop was entitled ‘Six Actors in Seach of a Director.’ The actors were Reinout Bussemaker, Pamela Knaack, Shaun Lawton, Matthias Maat, Dulcie Smart and Nelleke Zitman.

It was Kieślowski’s last try at teaching.

 
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