Blind Chance/Przypadek (1981/87 Poland 122 mins)
Prod Co: P. P. Film Polski Prod: Jacek Szelígowski Dir, Scr: Krzysztof Kieslowski Phot: Krzysztof Pakulski Ed: Elzbieta Kurkowska Prod Des: Rafal Wlatenberger Mus: Wojciech Kilar
Cast: Boguslaw Linda, Boguslawa Pawelec, Marzena Trybala, Monika Gozdzik, Tadeusz Lomnicki, Jacek Borkowski
All my films, from the first to the most recent ones, are about individuals who can’t quite find their bearings, who don’t quite know how to live, who don’t really know what’s right or wrong and are desperately looking.
– Krzysztof Kieslowski (1)
In the year before he made Blind Chance, Krzysztof Kieslowski directed two short, black and white documentaries. Talking Heads (Gadajace glowy, 1980) asks generations of Poles the questions “Who are you?” and “What do you most wish for?” One student, around the same age as the hero of Blind Chance, states, “I still have time to make a firm decision which will bind me for the rest of my life”. The second is set in a Railway Station (Dworzec, 1980), and describes a lifeless world dominated by surveillance and propaganda. The motifs of life-choices and railway stations equally inform Blind Chance, and register the ferment in Polish society at the time, when dissatisfaction with the Communist administration culminated in strikes organised by the Solidarity movement.
Blind Chance, like many Kieslowski films, executes a narrative loop, beginning with its end, as the hero Witek (Boguslaw Linda) screams at something we only understand in the last frame. A six-minute overture synopsises Witek’s youth by covering key events in his life – his birth and early education; the exile of his friend Daniel to Denmark; his affairs with women and various tense encounters with his father; his time as a medical student – until arriving at the film’s crisis, his father’s death in the late 1970s. These are images that will be explained, revised and interrogated throughout the film. Revealingly, his father dies as they talk on the phone, not finishing the sentence, “You don’t have to…”. Confused, Witek takes a leave of absence in order to consider his options.
The film offers three possible life stories for the hero, all beginning from the same point: he rushes through a crowded station, late for his train; he upsets a woman, causing her to lose a coin which is picked up by a tramp who buys a beer; he purchases a student ticket for Warsaw, races to the platform after the receding train, knocking the tramp on his way. In the first story he catches the train, in those following he doesn’t.
The first two stories seem to offer opposite tracks, but both have the same outcome: the unwitting betrayal of a group of political resistants, and the related failure of a love affair. In the first story, Witek meets an old Communist, Werner (Tadeusz Lomnicki), who introduces him to the Party, from which he emerges as a promising apparatchik. At the same time he reunites with an early love (Boguslawa Pawelec), who is involved in an organisation disseminating illegal literature. Through naivety or gullibility, he informs on the activists, and gets them jailed, including his girlfriend; on her release, she rejects him.
The second story finds Witek on the “other” side, organising religious-inflected resistance to the state. But this narrative also ends badly, suggesting that what is important is less the side Witek chooses than his need for guidance in a world where he has lost his father, and in a society whose oppressive paternalism is everywhere breaking down. The railway station appears to be a threshold, a transitional space, but it offers no real choices.
This dependence on father figures leads to betrayal and failure; in the final story, Witek manages to achieve Oedipal progress by succeeding the Dean of his medical school (Zygmunt Hübner) who is compromised by his son’s activism. In this story, Witek decides not to choose sides, concentrating on work, love and family. But in such a controlled society, “opting out” is synonymous with conformity, and Witek’s success is achieved at the expense of others. Each story is marked by a shuddering tear in the film’s temporal fabric that is indicated by the use of slow-motion and the rising, cod-Baroque musical theme.
Kieslowski groped his way towards a “universal” art in his later works, but Blind Chance is the most locally grounded of all his features, requiring a knowledge of Polish history in order for viewers to understand such allusions as the aftermath of strike violence bloodying the hospital in which Witek is born, the various biographical details he relates throughout, or the 1968 anti-Semitic purge that forces his friend’s family out of Poland (2). The casting of the film is also important, with the Communist Werner, for instance, played by a former member of the Party’s Central Committee (3).
Despite Kieslowski’s professed concern with Witek’s inner life (4) – the film begins with the camera seeming to enter his screaming mouth, as if attempting to penetrate his soul – Blind Chance “strongly reflect[s] the political climate of [its] time” (5), with its “grim” (6) interiors offering settings for long, futile, regretful conversations; the sinister Party culture exercising control through surveillance and harassment by thugs; and resistance achieved through religion, the Flying Universities (7) and underground literature, while creating a fragile sense of community. The authorities promptly shelved the film for six years (8).
In his next feature, No End (Bez konca, 1984), Kieslowski would present a vision of Poland as limbo, or hell. In Blind Chance, the framing narrative loop and the forking-path (9) narrative structure – where characters, locations, sequences and even dialogue repeat and vary in a pattern – trap the “decent” (10) but weak and manipulable hero; he is doomed to repeated mistakes and dead ends and can only escape by dying. As Kieslowski said, “That’s usually why people die. One can say it’s cancer or a heart attack or that the person falls under a car, but really people usually die because they can’t go on living.” (11)
If Kieslowski uses the railway system as a figure for his various narrative criss-crosses in Blind Chance, it also marks a junction in his own career. After more than a decade of documentaries (often allegorically set in institutions such as factories and hospitals, where closed systems are shown to malfunction) and two features with vaguely realist content (The Scar [Blizna, 1976] and Camera Buff [Amator, 1979]), about good men corrupted or manipulated by the system, this film’s conceptual narrative and interior focus anticipates works such as Dekalog (1988), La double vie de Véronique (1991) and the Trois couleurs trilogy (1993-94). For No End, Kieslowski met the collaborators (screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz and composer Zbigniew Preisner) who would help define his later, mannered style, with its emphasis on: the “illogical” connections and unseen forces operating beneath everyday life; the tricking about with filters and focus lenses; and the Mickey Mousing of music to signal profundity. Blind Chance offers a unique opportunity to see a director making the move from craftsman to auteur: there are many indications of future flourishes, but enough of the old grounding in reality to avoid the later films’ glossy self-parody.
- Quoted in Danusia Stok (ed.), Kieslowski on Kieslowski, Faber and Faber, London, 1995, p. 79.
- For the Polish background to Blind Chance, see David A. Andelman, “Contempt and Crisis in Poland”, International Security vol. 6, no. 3, Winter 1981/82; Stok, especially pp. xv-xxi; and Marek Haltof, The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski: Variations on Destiny and Chance, Wallflower Press, London, 2004, pp. 53-55, 57.
- Haltof, p. 59.
- Stok, p. 113.
- Stok, p. xiii.
- Janina Falkowska, “‘The Political’ in the Films of Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieslowski”, Cinema Journal vol. 34, no. 2, Winter 1995, p. 41.
- These were lectures and seminars held in private homes, and were subject to frequent police raids. Stok, p. xvii .
- Haltof, p. 54.
- See David Bordwell, “Film Futures”, SubStance vol. 31, no. 1, 2002 .
- Stok, p. 113.
- Stok, p. 34. Bordwell argues that the film’s repetitions and consistencies are “cohesion devices” designed to make the film’s potentially radical three-way narrative “cognitively manageable” for audiences. Bordwell, pp. 95, 91.