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Vol.25, No. 08 Nov. 12, 1999

Conversation on Kieslowski with Annette Insdorf

By Ulrika Brand

Quick, name the ten greatest film artists of our day.

Krzysztof Kieslowski may not be a name that springs to mind, yet many critics and fellow filmmakers, such as the late Stanley Kubrick and Wim Wenders, would put him on that list.

Professor Annette Insdorf has written a new book, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (Talk Miramax/Hyperion), that offers an introduction to the life and work of this Polish filmmaker best known for The Double Life of Véronique and his trilogy Blue, White, Red.

A professor in the Graduate Film Division of the School of the Arts, as well as Director of Undergraduate Film Studies, Insdorf is the author of two highly regarded studies, François Truffaut and Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, and she writes frequently for The New York Times. Her work as a film scholar has resulted in her recent promotion from the rank of Chevalier (knight) to an Officier dans l'ordre des arts et des lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. She is also much in demand on the home front; last month she appeared on 20/20 as an expert on Marilyn Monroe.

Insdorf first met Kieslowski in 1980 when she was asked to translate for the director at the New York Film Festival; they developed both a working and personal relationship until Kieslowski's untimely death in 1996 at the age of 54. She has screened Kieslowski's films in her classes for the last three years and says there is nothing more gratifying than watching her students respond to his work. She claims that something about Kieslowski's films inspires their highest caliber writing. Which is why she could not resist quoting some of them in her monograph.

Why did you feel compelled to write a book about this filmmaker?

Insdorf: It's very simple: the more Kieslowski films I watched, the more I became convinced that he is one of the truly most important, inspirational filmmakers of our time.

Why?

Insdorf: Truffaut once said it very well: "For me a great film is one that simultaneously expresses an idea of the cinema and an idea of the world." I happen to love movies that work on both emotional and intellectual levels. Kieslowski is clearly not the only filmmaker able to do so—Jean Renoir and Bertolucci are names that come to mind—but rarely have I found a body of work that is as morally, politically and spiritually rich as it is stylistically arresting.

What would you say, for an American audience, would jump out at them as defining a Kieslowski film?

Insdorf: A few things. If you look at the most famous of his films, Blue, White, Red, there is a haunting quality: you're made aware that there is something more at work than what the eye can see. At the risk of sounding fuzzy, I'll suggest that there is a spiritual dimension embedded in his sensual textures.

Is there an easy way to define this ethical basis?

Insdorf: There's never anything easy about Kieslowski's films. Rather, I think he makes the audience work a little harder than most directors do. You almost have to watch each of his films a second time to see the layers on which it is working—like a good novel that invites a second reading. In Red, for example, there are haunting parallels between characters, between past and present, and the richness of the images and music are part of something deeper, namely a really compassionate view of fallible human beings. Maybe the bottom line for me is that Kieslowski truly loved his characters and invites us into a poignant awareness of both our limitations and our capacity for transcendence.

So, is that a religious view?

Insdorf: He always resisted the word religious with a capital "R". He didn't identify himself as a Christian mouthpiece. On the other hand, of course, his work is profoundly religious, but with a small "r". In other words, I think he believed in a soul, a soul that can transcend physical limitation. It's a skeptical humanism in his work, more than a religious didacticism.

Kieslowski was very much a product of the time and place in which he evolved [post World War II Warsaw] so there is a political dimension, a philosophical dimension and a poetic dimension that for me are very Polish. There's a kind of yearning nostalgia for a world beyond the reach of the characters. There is also a profound pessimism, with ordinary people caught in circumstances they have trouble controlling. That's not limited to Polish reality, but it's certainly a part of that.

There's also a particular kind of Polish humor which is connected to many brands of Eastern European humor—deeply ironic. Polish humor has an edge whether it's in Kieslowski's films or those of Zanussi or Wajda: artists who work in times of censorship learn to circumvent with ironic imagery.

Your parents are both Polish and you grew up speaking Polish. Do you feel a cultural connection to Kieslowski?

Insdorf: I do. And as his translator, I learned a lot about him. He was a remarkable human being, incredibly honest, decent and down to earth. It's rare you say about some film director, "What a good man." But he was. Very by-the-way, emotional, very nonsentimental, dry in his wit and in his bearing, but he really made an impression on me and my mother.

In her series "Reel Pieces" at the 92nd Street Y this month and next, Insdorf screens films and leads discussions with noted film artists, including Sigourney Weaver (Nov. 17), Christopher Walken (Dec. 2) and Anjelica Huston (Dec. 6). The evenings take place 7:15 p.m. at 1395 Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street, with the exception of Dec. 6, which takes place at Rockefeller University, 1230 York Avenue. The Dec. 9 program is to be announced. Tickets for Columbia ID holders are $10 (a 50% discount) at the Y box office.