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FILM: tectac's Krzysztof Kieslowski, Ranked

One of the first foreign (i.e., non-English speaking) directors I fell in love with; his ability to blend texture and genuine human emotion creates metaphysical experiences like no other. Gone too early, it always makes me wonder what else he would've done if he were still here today. For the purposes of this list, I am considering each DEKALOG episode as a separate entity because [1] they have been screened separately as individual features, [2] they can operate as standalone films despite the thematic connectivity, and [3] they all meet the AFI/BFI requirement for feature length (40 min). I am not, however, considering Kieslowski's short films or early, political documentaries, of which I've only seen a few in very poor quality (and have been mostly unable to locate the rest). I'm also including A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING / LOVE in place of DEKALOG episodes FIVE / SIX (respectively) since they are, in essence, various cuts of the "same" film (despite the different ending of LOVE / SIX). Doesn't make sense to rank them separately.
22The National
Trouble Will Find Me

>> PERSONNEL (1975)

Just not much dramatic or even aesthetic interest in Kieslowski's first non-documentary feature. The vérité style doesn't suit his best strengths as a visual director, and the narrative itself is so comparatively slight to almost everything hereafter that it's difficult to find reasons to ever come back to this. If nothing else, it shows significant progress from the early shorts I've seen, but they are such different beasts that it's almost hard to compare. Not "bad" by any means, but clearly the work of someone still trying to find their proper footing. (And he eventually did.)
21Beach House

>> DEKALOG, SEVEN (1989)

My least favorite DEKALOG episode: Truth is, there's absolutely nothing wrong with it (except maybe the ending, which is emotionally silly and narratively pat), it just happens to be the most plainly written, assembled, and executed segment from a cumulatively masterful compilation of miniature features. The strained relationship of the mother/mother presents a very interesting dynamic, but it plays out more or less exactly like you might expect, which feels moderately rote for Kieslowski. Still plenty to stew over, though, but it's almost more fun to talk about than actually watch.
20Chelsea Wolfe

>> BLIND CHANCE (1981)

Have always liked this film, especially the *idea* of it, though I think it needed to be about four hours long for it to be truly great. In its existing two-hour state, it doesn't have enough time to properly allot to each of Witek's three narrative branches for them to grow organically, and as a result, things feel a bit mechanical and rushed. (And Witek, in turn, looks like the most easily impressionable sap on the planet.) I've no problems with any of the throughlines and their destinations, but you can tell a lot of interstitial material was cut from the film to truncate the runtime to something more digestible, which is unfortunate. This would make for a nice, long, episodic "feature" á la Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. Good, but flawed.
19The Number Twelve Looks Like You
Worse Than Alone

>> THE CALM (1976)

A significant step up from PERSONNEL just one year later, both formally and thematically; though Kieslowski is well known for incorporating political themes into his films, things here are almost a bit too bare-faced, and the result is something resembling didactic advocacy...not to say (anti-)propaganda, but close. Even still, Kieslowski's eye for minor, humanistic touches and oppressive landscapes does a lot of heavy lifting, and you can see how he's beginning to blend his political sensibilities with the human/emotional elements, which would truly come to fruition in some of his later work.
18Godspeed You! Black Emperor
'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!

>> DEKALOG, EIGHT (1989)

Used to be my least favorite DEKALOG episode, but a (somewhat) recent revisit greatly improved my thoughts and feelings on it (and yes, it's now merely second-to-last, but the entire DEKALOG is incredible, so what can I say). My biggest nitpick has always been (and still is) the excessive use of exposition through load-bearing dialogue. But what I previously missed were all of the super-humanistic touches Kieslowski plants throughout, e.g. Zofia’s slight facial tic when Elzbieta’s recounting her childhood story, the desolate nighttime wandering through the same apartment complex decades later, or the way Zofia’s teacups are all appropriately different. Love the tie-ins to DEKALOG, TWO and TEN, also. Contortionist in the park is one of the series's most ham-fisted moments, but there's enough beauty elsewhere to compensate.
17King Crimson


Heavily political, as was much of Kieslowski's work, which is typically something I'm allergic to, but Kieslowski's approach here is both subversive and moderately thrilling: Rather than assume the vantage point of "the oppressed," he looks through the lens of "the oppressor." And while he's clearly on the side of the people (in real life), SHORT WORKING DAY doesn't posit The Party as wholly reprehensible, either, instead revealing their pressures and incentives as something of a presumed necessity, introducing a lot of moral conflict and genuine uncertainty among which side is genuinely "right" and "wrong." Every good essay on a specific topic should have at least one paragraph dedicated to a reflexive counter-argument, and here is Kieslowski's version of that among his canon.
16Queens of the Stone Age
Era Vulgaris

>> THE SCAR (1976)

Could've been tighter; maybe 90 minutes instead of 100-something, given that much time is dedicated to very specific events among a political procedural that would've been fine with some truncation. I do like this film a lot, though, as Kieslowski creates a devil's advocate surrogate being pulled in either direction by his city's government and its fine people. To my mind, it accurately captures how even a man with wholly good intentions is capable of making decisions that might seem "bad" to several hundreds, thousands, or tens-of-thousands of people. A good argument that there are (almost) always two sides to every story. A lot of nice visual touches, too, like the collage of trees being cut down in the forest, or the split black-and-white shot of a man installing a light-bulb into his new apartment.
15Kate Bush
Hounds of Love

>> FIRST LOVE (1974)

Honestly not sure how much of this is real vs. fiction, which I find both frustrating and enticing; seems like nothing more than an emotional meat-grinder, which in many ways, it is, but it's also hard to ignore that this was essentially the state of Poland back in the mid-70s, and this wasn't too far removed from the way a pregnant teenager would've been treated by that era's society. There are hints of artificiality that always make me question my emotions, but this is devastating nonetheless, and as always, Kieslowski's ability to key in on minor idiosyncrasies of the human complexion was apparent even back in 1974.

>> DEKALOG, ONE (1989)

This is a lot of people's favorite DEKALOG episode and I can see why: It embodies the conceit perfectly (in that it aligns perfectly with one of the ten commandments), it's full of morally complex reasoning, legitimate empathy, and ends on a truly gut-wrenching note. In my eyes, this is a great DEKALOG episode that gets a bit too on-the-nose with its parallels, though, and, in several instances, exercises its theses aloud too clearly. (Like, for example, when the boy randomly asks his dad about death after seeing a dead dog, and the conversation that follows...Just feels like inorganic precursor imo.) Performances are excellent, and the father's growing paranoia once he realizes that his boy might be gone is absolutely shredding. A great DEKALOG episode, just not The Greatest.
Spiritual Healing

>> NO END (1985)

A nice cocktail of politics and personal grief, almost like a dry-run for BLUE that entwines a subsidiary story about the oppression of communism in Poland. The way Kieslowski seamlessly weaves the various strands is impressive, though his embodiment of grief strikes me as far more arresting than his political lobbying. Though here, the slew of tactics used on the imprisoned man does an adequate job of summarizing the myriad of attitudes and anxious behaviors caused by the government during those times. One of my favorite openings to any Kieslowski film (the spectral speech is chilling) and easily one of his most bleak closing shots, too.
12Talk Talk
Spirit of Eden


Another DEKALOG episode that's grown in my estimation over time and several revisits. The power of TWO is hidden in the details, and it gains momentum the more you think about the choices and the consequences at play. You’ve got a headstrong clash of The Cowardly and The Selfish (with a side order of The Unfaithful, of course) ; a woman too afraid to make what will likely be the biggest decision of her life—one way or the other—and essentially tries to unload her dilemma onto someone else through a pretense of guilt and undeserved responsibility, enforcing a sort of abortion-by-proxy. I mean, that’s some next-level cold-hearted shit. yeah, maybe TWO relies a bit too heavily on monotonous exchange and pure mechanism over pragmatism, but little touches like e.g. The Schrödinger’s “Progression” make up for a lot of that banality.
11The Beatles
The Beatles


There's no one to "root" for in WHITE, and as time traverses, so grows the complexity of the characters. The plot gets a tad too thorny for its own good, swishing through a pretty remarkable series of unlikely events and asking us to play along; perhaps that's part of Kieslowski's humor, that we should believe a man would even make it that far stuffed into a suitcase, or that an ex-lover framed for a murder she didn't commit wouldn't attempt to plead her case (despite having a doctored passport). A lot of tiny moments really bring this one to life, though, like the playful shot of Karol and Mikolaj running around like children on the frozen pond, just minutes after a supreme second chance is granted. The recurring flashbacks to a shot of Karol's wedding day is about as inexplicably heartbreaking as things can get.
10Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin IV

>> DEKALOG, FOUR (1989)

As with most of these segments, the finest details are the ones that effortlessly get me into a stranglehold : the way Michał’s eyes quickly scan his daughter’s body after dousing her with water e.g. is a perfect execution of subtly introducing a strange, uneasy tension without arising unnecessary attention. It’s the head-on confrontations that leave me the coldest, here, à la Michał and Anka’s direct correspondence re: their predicament. There’s some thoroughly juicy stuff there, too—perhaps my favorite bit of rhetoric is when Anka asks her father: ”Who are you afraid of, me or yourself?”—but all of the thorny chit-chat in the world couldn’t amass the same amount of arresting anxiety as Anka revealing herself to her “father,” the slightly hesitancy in his reaction capable of causing full-blown panic attacks. Great, prickly stuff here, stifled just a bit by a meager finish.
The Telluric Ashes of the Ö Vrth Immemorial Gods


I'll always hold a special place for this in my heart, as it was one of the first foreign films I fell in love with, one of the first films that showed me cinema as an "art" that could extend beyond comedic storylines and action-packed sequences. Revisiting this over the years has revealed that there's not much weight to the parallels between Weronika and Veronique (at least not far beyond the superficial delights), but I've subsequently come to love this somewhat inconsequential weightlessness. This, perhaps more than any other Kieslowski film, is visual poetry; there's a specific lyricism to the way he uses colors, faces, and framing (the shot of Weronika on the phone with three different colors splashes against her face always takes my breath away) to elicit feeling and emotion that, to my mind, no other director is equally capable of. What a lovely little film.
8The Appleseed Cast
Mare Vitalis

>> DEKALOG, TEN (1989)

Bold choice for Kieslowski to end his monumental masterwork on a subversively humorous note ("humor" being merely comparative in this case), but it was just what the series needed after nine preceding episodes of sheer emotional dourness. Even the conceit here is far-fetched and full of cheeky coincidences, but played with a such a straight-face that you can almost feel Kieslowski grinning behind the lens. The final shot of the brothers laughing, head-to-head, sums things up nicely. Favorite sequence is the splicing of a kidney surgery with a home invasion. Brilliant.
The Power of Failing


Manages to capture a striking balance between muted and exorbitant, somehow both subdued *and* ostentatious; blue becomes a character in and of itself, an ominous beacon that keeps a dutiful watch over everything. Handles grief in a similar manner, realizing that everyone copes in their own way. Not sure if the revelation of Julie being the true mastermind behind her husband's famous compositions has a deeper meaning w.r.t. emotional entanglement, or if it's meant to be an encryption of her true feelings, but either way it doesn't seem fully satisfying (although there's a brilliant shot of Julie looking at pages of unfinished scoring, tracing along the notes as the music plays in her head, and continues to play even once the notes abruptly end). It's a film that 'paradoxically registers more deeply when approached from a completely superficial level. It's more about experiencing the emotional roller coaster than deciphering every last symbolic gesture.
6Two People
First Body

>> CAMERA BUFF (1979)

Most established auteurs have at least one film that functions as a love letter to cinema ; this is clearly Kieslowski’s, and what’s so fascinating about it is that it also presents a sort of contrast to abut the romanticism—one man’s obsession with “art” (or in this particular case, the art of filmmaking) effectively turns it into a mistress, resulting in a clash of interest at home as the jealous wife watches a video camera absorb her husband’s utmost attention, leaving her (and their newborn daughter) feeling third wheel. It’s an interesting insinuation that often gets tossed aside in lieu of pure joy when crafting these filmic odes. At the same time, however, he understands the power of cinema and the good things it's capable of: ”A person’s no longer alive, and yet she’s still here. It’s beautiful.” A sobering poesy to the wonderment of cinema, dusted of all the typical sugar coating and a great representation of one man's dilemma colored in shades of grey.
Millions Now Living Will Never Die

>> DEKALOG, NINE (1989)

Wouldn't be surprised if this was at least partially Von Trier's inspiration for BREAKING THE WAVES. Kieslowski, as expected, takes a much less abrasive approach, stirring more between the internal conflict of one's own emotions than the interaction between parties. I submit that it’s fundamentally one of the simplest in terms of how the dramaturgy is manufactured, but said drama is so casually arresting that lack of complexity hardly registers. I imagine it’d be difficult to draw up the blueprints for an affair and still somehow elicit the notion that the married couple genuinely love and care about each other, but Kieslowski makes it look easy. This might be my pick for DEKALOG frontrunner in aestheticism, both visually and aurally. The elevator scene is obviously great, but the episode’s best display of mastery is the extended POV-shot as Roman spies from a closet, witnessing his wife’s tryst firsthand from behind the small crack of a door. Damn.
4David Bowie
Let's Dance


I've previously likened this to REAR WINDOW, though now I see that’s a lazy comparison built on the very fundamental theme of voyeurism—this is infinitely richer, rooting itself not in a mere exercise of suspense or mystery, but a multifaceted portrayal of “love,” and how its very definition can shapeshift depending on context, emotion, experience, et al, coming dangerously close to overlapping boundaries with what we’d consider “obsession” or “sexuality.” The trickiest gambit here is balancing Tomek’s clearly contemptible behavior with his feeble personality, so rather than condemn him for essentially undergoing creepy/illegal acts of self-gratifying espionage, we end up pitying him, his frailty, his meekness, his ignorance. The role reversal that eventually takes place—a few moments too late, of course—is what continues to gut me, though. (On the record: I prefer the bleak ending of SIX to the shredding fantasy of LOVE.)


So much density, yet it never gets cumbersome or weighty or pretentious or smarmy for all of the narrative knitting it attempts. It’s a film about unjustifiable coincidences and fortuitous events that are so elegant in their randomness that it’s hard to believe they’re random at all. Kieslowski’s pet-themes of metaphysical connections arise yet again, this time with a generation gap that separates the players, adding yet another layer of wisdom and hindsight to the mixture. Underlines the long-term effect of the tiny, small-scale decisions we (sometimes thoughtlessly) make, and it effortlessly straddles the line between Unavoidable Fate and Pure Consequence. And while the otherworldly readings are quite fun, I prefer to think of it has entirely secular i.e., Auguste vicariously reenacting his second chance through Joseph, partially through guidance, partially through coincidence. An absolutely riveting film in every sense of the word.
Apocalypse of the Damned


So much mastery at work here that I'm willing to be lenient with its agency. (Its greatness should not hinge on your personal stance on capital punishment.) You could even posit everything here is a simple juxtaposition meant to be merely considered. There's an untouchable grimness to it, reflected in the drab yellow and green filter that engulfs everything except the occasionally recurring blotches of bright red. A darkness swallows the edges of the frame, barely opening to reveal the faces of the grimy world's characters, the obfuscation clearly proportionate to the severity of their intentions (note the heavy isolation when we're following Jacek compared to the relative "openness” during Piotr's preamble; the cab driver is somewhere in-between). Two murders: One done haphazardly and illegally in a taxicab, the other methodically and lawfully in a government prison, both uncomfortable to watch for a myriad of different reasons.
1Dirty Three
Horse Stories

>> DEKALOG, THREE (1989)

At some point, I developed an inexplicable soft spot for people who undergo laborious setups and uphold knowing artifice at great lengths as either a display of hopeless romanticism or a direct service to their own personal comfort. The latter is mostly true, here, but it’s stained with curdled remnants of the former. A forbidden love that soured and forked, one tendril flourishing outward as though nothing had ever happened, the other left to slowly wilt away, macerating in its own hopelessness. Ewa’s constant swerving between unhinged fervency and cosmic disaffection is nothing short of ravishing, especially when the shtick is revealed: The gruesome fanaticizing, vicious conscience-clearing, and fruitless arm-tugging becomes recontextualized under the pretense of her acceptance of death, and that’s pretty much the most heart-breaking thing ever. Highlights how nothing can mean everything to someone under the right conditions. My favorite Kieslowski piece.
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