1993-1994, Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, $79.95
“Do people really want liberty, equality, fraternity? Is it not some manner of speaking?”
— Krzysztof Kieślowski
If the cinematic year of 1994 is remembered for anything, it is for the mainstreaming of Quentin Tarantino. That year saw the release of his Pulp Fiction within a few months of the ultraviolent, Tarantino-inspired Natural Born Killers. This mainstreaming was not just of a single cineaste, but of an entire sensibility—one that would dominate much American filmmaking for the remainder of the decade.
But 1994 also saw, more quietly, the release of the latter two films in Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy. The concluding film, Red, premiered at the same Cannes Film Festival as did Pulp Fiction; among its many admirers was Tarantino himself. “That’s the best movie of this year and it’s going to win the Palme d’Or,” Tarantino reportedly confided to Harvey Weinstein after seeing the film. (In the event, it was Pulp Fiction that won the top prize.)
Red was not just the conclusion of an acclaimed film trilogy—it also brought to a close one of the most remarkable careers in the history of world cinema. Kieślowski was just 52 when he announced, at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, his imminent retirement—a move Roger Ebert would compare to Prospero throwing his books into the sea. Two years later, he was dead.
And 25 years later, Kieslowski has few self-conscious imitators. It’s not that his influence is non-existent: Tom Tykwer has explicitly acknowledged a debt, and his Run Lola Run plays like Kieslowski on ketamine, an adrenal rush through ideas of fate, chance, and connectedness that play out in more languid form in Kieslowski’s films. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, released five years after Red, offers a more melodramatic and on-the-nose statement of the latter’s theme of coincidence. Even the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring romantic comedy Sliding Doors is generally taken to be an Americanized version of Kieslowski’s early film, Blind Chance, right down to the significance of missed subway trains.
These imitators aside, though, what remains foreign about Kieslowski’s sensibility is the ethos that pervades the trilogy—wise, skeptical, and humane; compassionate without veering into sentimentality. It was a sensibility more admired than awarded, in its time no less than ours. (In a classically revealing move, the Academy Awards electorate nominated Kieślowski for “Best Director” before ultimately awarding the Oscar to Robert Zemeckis for Forrest Gump.)
Yet a quarter century has not dimmed the trilogy’s luster. Looking back on these three films now, it is possible to see more fully than in their time how they functioned as a subtle yet powerful political commentary on modern Europe. Released at a time of enormous hope for the continent, the films have much to tell us now that so many of those hopes are withering.
But what are they about?
The plot of each film is deceptively simple, featuring a series of seemingly unrelated characters. In Blue, Julie, the young Parisian wife of a famous composer, loses her husband and child in a car accident and spends the rest of the film wrestling with overwhelming grief and solitude. In the end, she tentatively begins a professional and potentially romantic relationship with Olivier, a former collaborator of her husband’s.
In White, Karol, a Polish hairdresser living in Paris, is left divorced and impoverished by his younger French wife, Dominique, on the grounds that he cannot perform sexually (indeed, he was unable to consummate their marriage). He returns to Warsaw and spends the remainder of the film seeking to avenge his humiliation, only to realize upon the successful execution of an elaborate plot of vengeance that he remains in love with her.
In Red, Valentine, a young model living in Geneva, finds her largely solitary life interrupted when she accidentally hits a dog with her car. This brings her into contact with the animal’s owner, a cynical, retired judge, with whom she forms a friendship. Meanwhile, Auguste, a young law student who lives nearby, discovers his lover’s infidelity in a turn of events that mirrors the judge’s own personal history decades prior. The film and the trilogy conclude with a terrible disaster—a ferry has sunk in the English Channel, leaving seven survivors, six of whom are major characters from the three films: Julie and Olivier, Karol and Dominique, Valentine and Auguste.
As with his earlier Dekalog, a series of films based thematically around the Ten Commandments, Kieslowski makes no bones about the motif of the Colors trilogy. The title of each film corresponds to one of three banded colors on the French flag, and to the concepts they symbolize: blue for liberté, white for égalité, and red for fraternité. The very stock of each film is suffused with the hues of its respective color; the experience of viewing them is as much sensual as it is intellectual.
The tricolor heralded the beginning of political modernity in Europe, and not only there. This modern age was characterized by the elevation of abstract ideas—later branded ideologies—over concrete political practices and relationships. Taken together, liberty, equality, and fraternity were the anchoring concepts of the nascent nation-state. Taken apart, they branched into the overarching political systems of atomistic liberalism, communism, and nationalism, culminating in the short and terrible 20th century, what Eric Hobsbawm would label the age of extremes.
The Three Colors trilogy, meanwhile, was shot at the close of that short 20th century. These films’ productions were presaged by the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany, and the formal establishment of the European Union under the Maastricht Treaty. More broadly, this period was characterized by a cautious sense of hope for Europe’s future defined by peace and unity, free of the great ideological clashes that had come before.
Kieslowski himself was reticent about working from a schematic program in the trilogy (and his collaborators attest to his willingness to rely upon happy accidents). Moreover, he denied a political valence to his films. Indeed, he repeatedly disdained politics, lamenting that he had ever allowed political concerns to intrude on his earlier films. “Everything is important except politics,” he once said:
Loneliness is important. So is love, and the lack of it. Hopelessness, everything. Politics is not, because it isn’t there. It only emerges in absurd and insignificant situations. That’s hardly politics, but rather the consequence of political ineptitude. There’s no water, elevators don’t work. The basic things of life become problems. Life is organized in a bad and stupid way.
In a sense, he rigorously adhered to this position: His films function as neither endorsements nor critiques of political programs or parties. And yet, to paraphrase Trotsky, politics was interested in him. Kieslowski’s late-career flourishing was only made possible by larger political changes that allowed him to move and work in the West. Moreover, the remarkable subtlety of Kieslowski’s work can be attributed to his generation’s political experience of filmmaking under communist censorship. As he remarked: “Communication with the audience above the level of the censor created possibilities which colleagues in the West never had.”
Of course, political films are often in bad odor. The reasons are not obscure: They date themselves, they tend toward propaganda, they are often boring and didactically so. Film is an inherently tyrannical medium, so an oblique treatment of politics is wanted; a too-direct approach triggers the viewer’s defenses.
But to refuse to make political films is not the same as to refuse to have anything to say about political things and their relation to human life. As it happens, Kieslowski had much to say about both. As no less an authority than Stanley Kubrick observed of his films, “They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don’t realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.”
Blue, as becomes clear from even a single viewing, is about the impossibility of true liberty. Julie is, on the surface, a perfectly liberated woman: at once self-sufficiently wealthy and free of any personal encumbrances or responsibilities, thanks to the car accident that took the lives of her family at the start of the film.
As the critic Nick James remarks in an insightful essay, Julie’s liberty functions as a kind of horrific parody of a feminist ideal: She is financially independent and free of the burdens of patriarchal dominion and motherhood. Following her recovery from the accident, Julie liquidates all her possessions and leaves her rooted estate in the country for Paris; she is urbanized capital incarnate.
Her only remaining burdens are her crippling memories, which the audience claustrophobically experiences with her as the shot fades in and out at moments of particularly intense grief. Julie’s grief finally seems to plateau midway through the film, when we see her meet a woman even freer than she: Her mother, stricken with Alzheimer’s, is indeed liberated of the memories that are Julie’s last remaining fetter.
Yet, this being Kieslowski, Blue does not simply and unequivocally treat liberty in the negative. As we see when she finally encounters her husband’s pregnant mistress (whose existence was previously unknown to Julie), she has freed herself from certain illusions that her formerly happy life required. Cold comfort, perhaps, but this in turn allows Julie to perform acts of remarkable grace.
And there is another sense in which her happy domestic life required false discretion. As revealed by her working with Olivier on her husband’s uncompleted opus, it seems that Julie was in fact her famous husband’s silent professional collaborator (and perhaps more). But in the end, whatever qualified happiness Julie regains has required her to abandon the liberty of modern atomism and re-establish the ordinary bonds of human need and affection.
It is wholly characteristic of Kieslowski to treat liberty with such ambiguity. His remarks on post-Soviet liberalization in Poland were scathing: “[T]hings have changed for the worse. That’s why former eastern bloc countries are electing communists again. We are missing them and longing for the times we cursed before.” This was not the complaint of a fellow traveler but of a thinker who was well aware of the impact of political structures on personal relations. He adds: “I hated the communists and still hate them. But I do long for various friendships and ties that used to exist and don’t anymore. The camaraderie of old times has gone.”
That Kieslowski might understand the freedom granted by the collapse of communism ambivalently would surprise no one who has seen White. His touch remains light, and the quick editing and musical cues read like farce, such that only in retrospect might the viewer realize he has been watching a merciless satire of post-shock therapy capitalism. As with Blue, the personal and the political are hopelessly intertwined.
Though the source of Karol’s humiliation—impotence—might seem an intensely private matter, it is immediately spilled into the public by way of the judicial divorce proceedings that begin the film, during which is Karol is doubly humiliated for being unable to enter into the language of the proceedings against him.
There we learn that he was evidently able to satisfy his Dominique when they first met in Poland (and he was on more equal ground). It is only in haughty France that he is rendered impotent: a humble easterner with the homely name of Karol Karol, subservient to his wife, Dominique Vidal—as perfectly French a name as can be imagined—all impossibly cool Gallic sophistication and style. (It doesn’t hurt that she’s played by a young Julie Delpy.) When Karol later begs her to return with him to Poland, she sneers, “I’ll never go to Poland.” Karol’s now-unrequited desire for her is a synecdoche for the desire of the East for the West (think of Tolstoy’s francophone St. Petersburgers preferring the language of their invaders).
Karol demands to the court: “Where is the equality?” But it is nowhere to be found for him in France. The divorce is finalized, the bank account he shared with his wife is immediately frozen, and then Dominique torches the salon they owned together and threatens to call the police on him. It is as though all the institutions of the modern French world have turned against him. Even the pay phone steals his change.
His predicament rapidly gains political salience as the very borders are barred to him; having lost his passport along with his other possessions, he cannot legally return to Poland, and arranges to arrive in a suitcase carried by a fellow Polish émigré. But this is the new Poland, with petty criminality rampant, and the suitcase he sends himself in is stolen at the airport, and the enraged thieves beat him and throw into a garbage heap.
But it is through this same world of almost nihilistic capitalism that Karol achieves his reversal of fortune. In a wonderful bit of irony, he plans to achieve equality by mastering the tools of the West, embarking on a scheme that would have been impossible under the communist regime. He acquires startup capital by outwitting some low-level gangsters and refashions himself as a successful importer/exporter (the ambiguous legality of Karol’s business dealings, too, exemplifies the ex-Soviet bloc version of capitalism in the early 1990s). In the end, he turns the tables on Dominique as well, trapping her in Poland where she is now at the mercy of laws she doesn’t understand, and where newly corrupt institutions are easily subverted by a man of his means.
It seems, though, that it is not really equality he seeks, but mastery, a condition he achieves through an ingeniously plotted revenge. Or, as Kieslowski himself put it, referring to a Communist-era Polish expression: “I don’t think anybody really wants to be equal. Everybody wants to be more equal.” The haughty West is finally humbled by the savvy East, grown wiser under the former’s cruel tutelage. But the final shot of the film is not celebratory but tragic: rather than revel in his cleverly orchestrated victory over his faithless ex-wife, Karol weeps silently as he gazes up at her luminous face. Like Julie with liberty, he finds formal equality unachievable and gains a superiority that he doesn’t want.
What do we want then? For that we must turn to Red, a film about fraternity and transcendent connection, ingeniously set in neutral Switzerland. As Kieslowski noted of his design to shoot there: “Switzerland leans towards isolation. It’s an island in the middle of Europe. And Red is a story of isolation.”
Red has been called an anti-romance (as Blue is an anti-tragedy, and White an anti-comedy). This is conceptually clever but sensually misleading; the experience of watching Red is almost overwhelmingly romantic, each frame bathed in lush crimsons, rubies, and scarlets—all grounded by Valentine’s (get it?) palpable longing. What she longs for is less an individual man but love itself. And so, we are moved to cheer her ultimate pairing with Auguste, a man of whom we know so little except that he has been betrayed by love.
In keeping with the film’s literal theme, the romance we do actually witness onscreen is not erotic but fraternal. It is not longing that draws her to the embittered judge, but empathy. And what blossoms between them is not romance but friendship, albeit a friendship that may prepare her for real love. There is great poignancy in their meeting now, 40 years too late. The happy ending, if it is a happy ending, is brought about by Kiewslowski, playing Prospero, who creates the coincidence of Valentine meeting the man who must be the judge’s cosmic twin, 40 years removed. The past can be corrected, if only in art.
Of the films, Red reveals the strongest elements of the fantastical in other ways as well. The same elderly lady appears across all three films, attempting with varying success to deposit trash in a high-placed public receptacle. Yet in the first two films we find her in Paris, and in the final film in Geneva, lending her the appearance of a mythical figure.
The thematic primacy of the final film is countersigned by dozens of other small moments throughout the entire series, in which hidden connections are made vivid on repeated viewings. The divorce proceedings on which Julie accidentally intrudes in Blue are in fact those of Karol and Dominique. We are meant to suppose that the theft of Valentine’s absent boyfriend’s possessions in Poland was perpetrated by the same criminals who assault Karol. And finally, of course, the protagonists of all three films jointly appear in Red’s climax.
Moreover, there are numerous scenes emphasizing our essential connectedness throughout all three films, especially through music, which Kieslowski often spoke of as a medium of universal connection. In Blue, Julie’s attempts to freeze out memories of her old life are interrupted by a street musician playing a version of one of her dead husband’s melodies. In White, Karol’s fortunes begin to turn when a fellow Pole recognizes him as a compatriot after hearing him playing an old Polish folk tune for money in a Parisian subway. In Red, Valentine and Auguste can be seen unknowingly listening to the same music in a record store through headphones, isolated yet linked.
It is not incidental that the name of the symphony that Julie and Olivier complete is titled “Song for the Unification of Europe.” As we are informed through exposition, it was commissioned by the European Council to be played simultaneously in cities across the continent. Yet the punchline comes with the lyrics: not political slogans, but Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in Koine Greek—the mystic celebration of love. Appropriately, Olivier agrees to finish the work not out of some abstract ideological loyalty to the idea of Europe, but because he imagines it will restore Julie to him.
Fraternity’s primacy for Kieslowski is not a politico-philosophical statement but a deep truth of human existence. Crucially, the connections revealed and formed between the characters are not the result of politics but of art. His screenplay makes possible and his camera shows us certain bonds that no institutions of the state could form.
We want fraternity, it seems, but Kieslowski gives us none of its obvious political associations: tribalism, nationalism, the violent brotherhood of terrorist cells. (It is difficult to forget, in light of Kieslowski’s schema, that Napoleon offered the first vision of pan-European unity, on the back of his grande armee wielding the tricolor.) Its vision is closer to the universal fraternity promised by Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” with its great promise: Alle Menschen werden Brüder. But Kieslowski’s humanism is cooler, more ironic than Schiller’s, tempered perhaps by knowledge of the intervening two centuries. If we are all bound together, it is not by an emotional experience of superabundant joy, but by something more elusive and perhaps more terrible.
I have no idea how to see the sinking of the ferry at the conclusion of Red, with its shocking loss of life, other than as a kind of stand-in for the cataclysmic events of modern European history—which, under Kieslowski’s scheme, began with the Reign of Terror and the wars of revolution and extends through two World Wars, the Shoah, the Holodomor, and the political cleavage of the continent in two. Indeed, looking back from the end of the Cold War, late modernity as a whole looks like a cataclysm for Europe. (Incidentally, it is notable that the sinking occurs in the English Channel; perhaps we are to think of its survivors, landing in Dover, as having escaped the nightmare of continental European history.)
This ending has been criticized for elevating the fortunes of our several protagonists over the lives of over 1,400 unnamed individuals, harvesting meaning for the few from the meaningless deaths of so many. But here one might recall the Dekalog’s establishing shot, as it scans over Krakow’s skyline of drab and faceless Brutalist apartment buildings before zooming into one complex to reveal the teeming life within. Kieslowski seems to be saying: These stories happen everywhere.
It may be, then, that our protagonists have not been selected to survive by some improbable turn of fortune. It may be the reverse: that, working backward, the remarkable stories we have watched are merely the stories of those who happened to survive. In the sinking of the ferry, then, the personal and the political are intertwined through another of Kieslowski’s great themes: the vicissitudes of fate. Some find love, for others it will be too late. Some survived the geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century; many did not.
Though much about the conclusion seems to consciously defy interpretation—how did Dominique escape from prison? Are Julie and Olivier now romantic as well as creative partners? Do Valentine and Auguste understand who they are? Who is the seventh survivor?—however enigmatic and troubling the ending, its extraordinary final shot, ranking with those of The Searchers and The Third Man among the greatest in cinema, is one of hope: that where there is life, we might still correct the mistakes of the past. And where Red’s opening shot only results in a missed telephone connection, here the Judge watches, wide-eyed, as Valentine’s face fills his television screen.
And he sees—and we see through his eyes—that her once-cold profile now burns with life.
These films have been called anti-tragedy, anti-comedy, and anti-romance, but what they really are is anti-ideological. One has the sense that they were created during that brief window in which history had ended but the end of history had not. This was marked by a kind of simultaneous exhaustion with grand ideological movements and optimism about what might replace them.
Perhaps more than anything else, fraternity was the watchword of the then-new phase of the European project. Liberty had already spread through the collapse of the Berlin Wall and, more significantly, the collapse of the regimes sustained by the Warsaw Pact. Equality—formal equality at least—would be secured by the entrée of the Eastern European countries into NATO and the nascent European Union.
But the relationship of this project to fraternity was more complex. It represented the transcendence of fraternal nationalism in pursuit of notionally loftier goals of European integration. But at the same time, this endeavor could only be interpreted as a kind of higher fraternity: the substitution of European identity and European institutions for parochial, national ones.
The fraternal promise of pan-European unity is now at its lowest ebb perhaps since the Second World War, certainly since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is not surprising that fraternity, too, is proving the wheel upon which the European project may yet break. As the Three Colors trilogy shows, it speaks to our longing, on both personal and political levels, as nothing else quite does.
In their own ways, competing visions of fraternity are now at the heart of Europe’s troubles. The dream of Europeanism has come up against an even wider commitment of universal solidarity, in which European fraternity gives way to moral obligations to refugees from North Africa and the Near East, and perhaps elsewhere. But it has also come up against the local and national forms of particularism that have proven resistant to the bureaucratic administration of the Europe Union, not to say the more cosmopolitan demands of Angela Merkel, Jeremy Corbyn, et al. Arrivistes like Boris Johnson and Matteo Salvini have, meanwhile, posited a renewal of national unity against the Eurocrats, but their visions are vague and warped by personal ambition.
And here Europe stands, awaiting some version of political fraternity that is neither insipid nor horrific. Put not your faith in princes. Kieslowski would have understood.