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Agnieszka Holland on Kieslowski
Interview by Milos Stehlik
Originally recorded for Chicago Public Radio/WBEZ-FM

Filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa, Angry Harvest, Washington Square) is a filmmaker who has made films in Poland, France and the United States and was Kieslowski's close personal friend and colleague. In this interview with Facets' director Milos Stehlik, she talks about Kieslowski and the genesis of The Decalogue in the wake of martial law in Poland.

Agnieska Holland:...a one-hour television film and he decided to make from this two movies--the longer version for the cinema--and his cut of this was quite different from the television version. It was A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. And especially A Short Film About Killing changed the professional career of Krzysztof. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival before The Decalogue actually was finished and opened, and it was an incredible shock. The movie was so powerful, so original, and so different--and so important--in terms of the message and in terms of the cinematic work, that after, everybody knew and started to be interested in all of Krzysztof's work.

Then The Decalogue came and his Polish movies he did before were bought by French distribution and by German distribution and shown quite widely in the theaters. And Decalogue was an incredible success. It opened first theatrically, and after, many times shown on television in many countries. It was unfortunate that in the States, it's coming only now, so late. It's good that it's coming, but I think it was bought from a Polish television company by the Canadian distributor, who never wanted to open it, actually. It was kind of a story like from one of Kieslowski's movies.

Milos Stehlik: One of the things that Richard Corliss, when it was first shown at the New York Film Festival, said is that Kieslowski and Piesiewicz are interested in examining the relevance of old laws in a Catholic country in a post-moral age. What was this kind of situation between Communism and Catholicism--it's a kind of unique mix in Poland, no?

AH: Yes. It's quite complicated because it goes back to the 18th or 19th century when Poland wasn't independent. It was divided between Russia, Prussia, Germany, and Austria--which was Protestant out of those countries--and Catholicism became then the kind of the place where the national feelings and the need of independence was something very strong. It was a place where the national identity and the religious identity mixed together. And actually, it never changed because after the first world war, Poland became independent, but only for 20 years. After it, Germany came and there was a Nazi occupation of Poland, and after, Communists came from Russia. This came from Russia in some ways, and was aggressively anti-Catholic--and anti-religious. And the Church in Poland was much more the place where the kind of national political identity prevailed than the place of deep intellectual, metaphysical discussion or training. And it's one of the reasons, I think, why [cherszy lombroucht?] in Kieslowski's Decalogue, it shows Poland very vividly in some way, they didn't know what to do about it.

I don't think they are Catholic movies, frankly. I think that Krzysztof is somebody who had an incredibly deep need to believe in something transcendental. He did believe, but at the same time he wasn't really the member of any church, and his relationships toward the religious were less theological than ethical and metaphysical. Decalogue wasn't actually very well received in Poland. Only after Krzysztof died did he become a kind of icon, and his movies became the kind of cult movies Decalogue included. But when it was shown on Polish television, of course the people watched it, because it was quite interesting and quite original to see, because they were watching a lot of television. But it was quite confusing. They didn't know exactly what it does mean.

MS: But at the same time, it came at quite a prophetic time, because there was this change between the old structures of Communism, which would no longer be there. And now it would become a question of individual morality. So in a way he was looking ahead.

AH: Well, he was looking ahead, naturally, before it happened. I think that by the end of the seventies he started to feel this way. In the movie, which I found to be one of his best movies, called Blind Chance, he translates the political experience of individuals to a much more metaphysical experience of the individual. But it was closer to Joseph Conrad than Dostoyevski, for example, what he was exploring. The question of faithfulness was very important for Krzysztof, I think.

MS: In the film, the documentary about him Krzysztof Kieslowski: I'm So-So, Kieslowski says: "I'm a pessimist. To me the future is a black hole." But do you think his definition of pessimism is quite different? Because the films are never without hope.

AH: Well, you know, I think that he was very tired at this time and I think that his physical condition in some ways influenced his vision of the world. He was like, provocatively pessimist, always, you know. But at the same time it was some kind of a playfulness to some moment and afterwords he started just to work too much. He did like 50 movies in five years. And when I remember watching him at this time, I remember how worried I was, because in this five years he aged 20 years. He became incredibly consumed by this work and productive, and success wasn't something that was very healthy for him. In some ways, I think that he, with his very productive and humble nature, considered success as something immoral and he was unable to really enjoy it. He felt it as a burden of the responsibility. And also, when he was shooting something he was incredibly perfectionist. It wasn't important if it was a film for television or a big budget co-production, he put all of his energy and all of his life into that. And it just, I think, you know, consumed him. It was too much. When he did this interview for this documentary it was just one month before having his very bad heart attack, which after, caused his death. After he became ill, in some ways, it quieted him. Maybe he thought it was enough of a punishment for being successful. And he became very joyful again just before he died.

MS: One of the things that's amazing about The Decalogue is just the scope of production at shooting these 10 films at the same time and attracting all of this great Polish cinematographic talent to this one project. It's kind of an amazing...

AH: Not all--we have more, even, you know. It's necessary to do maybe like two Decalogues, really, to use them all.

MS: No, but I mean so many terrific cinematographers, actors, participated in these 10 films which he was shooting. So just the logistics of this is kind of formidable.

AH: Yeah, yeah. He was afraid, Krzysztof. It was a little too much, you know, to shoot 10 movies by one man, and he wanted also--he had many cinematographer friends. You know the cinematographers were very creative, and very nice people, mostly Polish. I have also a lot of friends that are Polish cinematographers. And it makes the choice, you know, very difficult, because you want to work with this one and this one... And you know the average fiction film director does one movie by two years. And this time, you know, he did 10 movies in one year, and that was a good opportunity to meet all these people and work. And also he thought that he would grow very tired after two or three. Then after everyone, the new cinematographer comes with the new energy and the new idea.

And you know, yes, it was a very good period. There weren't a lot of interesting movies in Poland at this time. It was a kind of a crisis of Polish cinema, which actually never ended because of the political situation--because of the martial law, which was such an incredible shock to all of the intellectual community and to all Poland. And in some ways, it shot down the creative energy which spread so widely by the end of the seventies among the younger filmmakers. And you know, a lot of these talented people--talented actors--were just waiting for something important to happen. Also, it was after the long period when the Polish actors supported Polish state television. They didn't want to be part of the television program, when in the information section there were so many lies about the solidarity movement, about their colleagues, about their friends. And they were very hungry for work. They didn't work for television, they didn't work for the cinema for practically six-seven years.

And then this project of Krzysztof came--which was probably the first big project--which again used the national sources of the Polish television. And it was clear that this was the kind of a project which you have to be part of. And that's why everybody wanted to be. It gave exactly their energy and talent.

MS: One of the things that both of you share is being two Polish filmmakers who wound up working in the west--in France and in the United States. How would you describe the change in this experience and in the direction?

AH: He became much more aware of the box office in some ways. He was even obsessed by the box office. I think that meeting some French actors, it was a very fortunate experience for him, and understanding also that he was able to find the language to speak to western Europe. And he became extremely popular, and all his movies were--which are not easy movies, you know, in some ways. They are slow, they are dealing with exact metaphysical questions. They don't have very action-like plots but they became very, very successful. And this kind of a possibility to communicate to the audience--you don't know the language and experience, and still you can share with them yours--I think it was very exciting. And some of the tools you have when you are working in better budget works of cinema, some kinds of technical tools, and so he became quite excited. But frankly, it didn't change him so much, except it made him probably more tense and tired. I actually, as his friend, was happy for him that he became, in some ways, well paid and famous. But I felt that he was unable to really enjoy it, because he didn't have the time and space for that.

MS: How do you remember him best? What is your best memory of him?

AH: It's difficult to tell, you know. He was such an important person in my life--the best friend I had for years and years. And probably the only one who I was able to share with my own problems--as well creative as my life problems. He was always a very faithful and tender friend. This I remember him more for. Frankly, I miss more the man than the filmmaker.