Kieslowski was born in Warsaw, the son of Barbara (nee Szonert) and Roman Kieslowski. He grew up in several small towns, moving wherever his engineer father, a tuberculosis patient, could find treatment. He was raised Roman Catholic and retained what he called a "personal and private" relationship with God. At sixteen, he attended a firefighters' training school, but dropped out after three months. Without any career goals, he then entered the College for Theatre Technicians in Warsaw in 1957 because it was run by a relative. He wanted to become a theatre director, but lacked the required bachelor's degree for the theatre department, so he chose to study film as an intermediate step.
Leaving college and working as a theatrical tailor, Kieslowski applied to the Lodz Film School, the famed Polish film school which also has Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda among its alumni. He was rejected twice. To avoid compulsory military service during this time, he briefly became an art student, and also went on a drastic diet in an attempt to make himself medically unfit for service. After several months of successfully avoiding the draft, he was accepted to the Lodz Film School on his third attempt.
He attended from 1964 to 1968, during a period in which the government allowed a relatively high degree of artistic freedom at the school. Kieslowski quickly lost his interest in theatre and decided to make documentary films. Kieslowski also married his lifelong love, Maria (Marysia) Cautillo, during his final year in school (m. 21 January 1967 to his death), and they had a daughter, Marta (b. 8 January 1972).
Kieslowski retired from film-making with a public announcement after the premiere of his last film Red at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival.
Kieslowski's early documentaries focused on the everyday lives of city dwellers, workers, and soldiers. Though he was not an overtly political filmmaker, he soon found that attempting to depict Polish life accurately brought him into conflict with the authorities. His television film Workers '71, which showed workers discussing the reasons for the mass strikes of 1970, was only shown in a drastically censored form. After Workers '71, he turned his eye on the authorities themselves in Curriculum Vitae, a film that combined documentary footage of Politburo meetings with a fictional story about a man under scrutiny by the officials. Though Kieslowski believed the film's message was anti-authoritarian, he was criticized by his colleagues for cooperating with the government in its production.
Kieslowski later said that he abandoned documentary filmmaking due to two experiences: the censorship of Workers '71, which caused him to doubt whether truth could be told literally under an authoritarian regime, and an incident during the filming of Station (1981) in which some of his footage was nearly used as evidence in a criminal case. He decided that fiction not only allowed more artistic freedom, but could portray everyday life more truthfully.
His first non-documentary feature, Personel (1975), was made for television and won him first prize at the Mannheim Film Festival. Both Personnel and his next feature, The Scar (Blizna), were works of social realism with large casts: Personel was about technicians working on a stage production, based on his early college experience, and The Scar showed the upheaval of a small town by a poorly-planned industrial project. These films were shot in a documentary style with many nonprofessional actors; like his earlier films, they portrayed everyday life under the weight of an oppressive system, but without overt commentary. Camera Buff (Amator, 1979) (which won the grand prize at the 11th Moscow International Film Festival) and Blind Chance (Przypadek, 1981) continued along similar lines, but focused more on the ethical choices faced by a single character rather than a community. During this period, Kieslowski was considered part of a loose movement with other Polish directors of the time, including Janusz Kijowski, Andrzej Wajda, and Agnieszka Holland, called the Cinema of Moral Anxiety. His links with these directors (Holland in particular) caused some raised eyebrows within the Polish government, and each of his early films was subjected to censorship and enforced re-shooting/re-editing, if not banned outright (Blind Chance was not released domestically until 1987, almost six years after it was completed).
No End (Bez konca, 1984) was perhaps his most clearly political film, depicting political trials in Poland during martial law, from the unusual point of view of a lawyer's ghost and his widow. It was harshly criticized by both the government and dissidents. Starting with No End, Kieslowski's career was closely associated with two regular collaborators, the screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz and the composer Zbigniew Preisner. Piesiewicz was a trial lawyer whom Kieslowski met while researching political trials under martial law for a planned documentary on the subject; Piesiewicz co-wrote the screenplays for all of Kieslowski's subsequent films. Preisner provided the musical score for No End and most of the subsequent films; the score often plays a prominent part in Kieslowski's films and many of Preisner's pieces are referred to within the films themselves. In these cases, they are usually discussed by the films' characters as being the work of the (fictional) Dutch composer Van den Budenmayer. The Decalogue (1988), a series of ten short films set in a Warsaw tower block, each nominally based on one of the Ten Commandments, was created for Polish television with funding from West Germany; it is now one of the most critically acclaimed film cycles of all time. Co-written by Kieslowski and Piesiewicz, the ten one-hour-long episodes had originally been intended for ten different directors, but Kieslowski found himself unable to relinquish control over the project; in the end, each episode featured a different director of photography. Episodes five and six were released internationally in a longer form as A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love respectively. Kieslowski had also planned to shoot a full-length version of Episode 9 under the title A Short Film About Jealousy, but exhaustion eventually prevented him from making what would have been his thirteenth film in less than a year.
Kieslowski's last four films, his most commercially successful, were foreign co-productions, made mainly with money from France and in particular from Romanian-born producer Marin Karmitz. These focused on moral and metaphysical issues along lines similar to The Decalogue and Blind Chance but on a more abstract level, with smaller casts, more internal stories, and less interest in communities. Poland appeared in these films mostly through the eyes of European outsiders.
The first of these was The Double Life of Veronique (La double vie de Veronique, 1990), which starred Irene Jacob. The commercial success of this film gave Kieslowski the funding for his ambitious final films, the trilogy Three Colors (Blue, White, Red), which explores the virtues symbolized by the French flag. The three films garnered prestigious international awards, including the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival and the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival, in addition to three Academy Award nominations.
Kieslowski often used the same actors in key roles in his films, including:Artur Barcis in No End, The Decalogue, A Short Film About Love, and A Short Film About Killing
Aleksander Bardini in No End, The Decalogue, The Double Life of Veronique, and Three Colors: White
Tadeusz Bradecki in Camera Buff and No End
Irene Jacob in The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colors: Red
Boguslaw Linda in Blind Chance and The Decalogue
Maria Pakulnis in No End and The Decalogue
Jerzy Stuhr in The Scar, Camera Buff, Blind Chance, The Decalogue, and Three Colors: White
Grazyna Szapolowska in No End, The Decalogue, and A Short Film About Love
Zbigniew Zamachowski in The Decalogue, and Three Colors: White
Just under two years after announcing his retirement, Krzysztof Kieslowski died on 13 March 1996 at age 54 during open-heart surgery following a heart attack, and was interred in Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw. His grave is located within the prestigious plot 23 and has a sculpture of the thumb and forefingers of two hands forming an oblong space—the classic view as if through a movie camera. The small sculpture is in black marble on a pedestal slightly over a meter tall. The slab with Kieslowski's name and dates lies below. He was survived by his wife Maria and daughter Marta.
Kieslowski remains one of Europe's most influential directors, his works included in the study of film classes at universities throughout the world. The 1993 book Kieslowski on Kieslowski describes his life and work in his own words, based on interviews by Danusia Stok. He is also the subject of a biographical film, Krzysztof Kieslowski: I'm So-So (1995), directed by Krzysztof Wierzbicki.
After Kieslowski's death, Harvey Weinstein (then head of Miramax Films, which distributed the last four Kieslowski films in the US) wrote a eulogy for him in Premiere magazine. In it he said that Quentin Tarantino saw The Double Life of Veronique at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival and took note of its star, Irene Jacob. He apparently wrote the part of Bruce Willis's wife in Pulp Fiction for her, but she was unavailable for the shoot. She was working on Kieslowski's Three Colors: Red at the time. According to the same article, Tarantino saw Red at Cannes and declared that it would win the Palme d'Or. Instead his own Pulp Fiction received the top prize at the festival.
Though he had claimed to be retiring after Three Colors, at the time of his death Kieslowski was working on a new trilogy co-written with Piesiewicz, consisting of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory and inspired by Dante's The Divine Comedy. As was originally intended for the Decalogue, the scripts were ostensibly intended to be given to other directors for filming, but Kieslowski's untimely death means it is unknown whether he might have broken his self-imposed retirement to direct the trilogy himself. The only completed screenplay, Heaven, was filmed by Tom Tykwer and released in 2002 at the Toronto International Film Festival. The other two scripts existed only as thirty-page treatments at the time of Kieslowski's death; Piesiewicz has since completed these screenplays, with Hell — directed by Bosnian director Danis Tanovic and starring Emmanuelle Beart — released in 2005. Purgatory, about a photographer killed in the Bosnian war, remains unproduced. The 2007 film Nadzieja (Hope), directed by Ibo Kurdo and Stanislaw Mucha, also scripted by Piesiewicz, has been incorrectly identified as the third part of the trilogy, but is in fact, an unrelated project. Jerzy Stuhr, who starred in several Kieslowski films and co-wrote Camera Buff, filmed his own adaptation of an unfilmed Kieslowski script as Big Animal (Duze zwierze) in 2000.
In an interview given at Oxford University, Kieslowski said the following:
It comes from a deep-rooted conviction that if there is anything worthwhile doing for the sake of culture, then it is touching on subject matters and situations which link people, and not those that divide people. There are too many things in the world which divide people, such as religion, politics, history, and nationalism. If culture is capable of anything, then it is finding that which unites us all. And there are so many things which unite people. It doesn't matter who you are or who I am, if your tooth aches or mine, it's still the same pain. Feelings are what link people together, because the word 'love' has the same meaning for everybody. Or 'fear', or 'suffering'. We all fear the same way and the same things. And we all love in the same way. That's why I tell about these things, because in all other things I immediately find division.
In the foreword to Decalogue: The Ten Commandments, American filmmaker Stanley Kubrick wrote:
I am always reluctant to single out some particular feature of the work of a major filmmaker because it tends inevitably to simplify and reduce the work. But in this book of screenplays by Krzysztof Kieslowski and his co-author, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, it should not be out of place to observe that they have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what's really going on rather than being told. 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.
Stanley Kubrick January 1991
Sight & Sound magazine conducts a poll every ten years of the world's finest film directors to find out the Ten Greatest Films of All Time. This poll has been going since 1992, and has become the most recognised poll of its kind in the world. In 2012 Cyrus Frisch voted for "A Short Film About Killing". Frisch commented: "In Poland, this film was instrumental in the abolition of the death penalty."
Since 2011, Polish Contemporary Art Foundation "In Situ" organizes a film festival in Sokolowsko, where Kieslowski spent a part of his youth. The annual "Sokolowsko Film Festival: Hommage a Kieslowski" commemorates the director's work. It is an interdisciplinary event, where screenings of his films are accompanied with creative workshops, panel discussions, performances, exhibitions and concerts.The Face (Twarz 1966), as actor
The Office (Urzad 1966)
Tramway (Tramwaj 1966)
Concert of Requests (Koncert zyczen 1967)
The Photograph (Zdjecie 1968)
From the City of Lodz (Z miasta Lodzi 1968)
I Was a Soldier (Bylem zolnierzem 1970)
Factory (Fabryka 1970)
Workers '71: Nothing About Us Without Us (Robotnicy '71: Nic o nas bez nas 1971)
Before the Rally (Przed rajdem 1971)
Between Wroclaw and Zielona Gora (Miedzy Wroclawiem a Zielona Gora 1972)
The Principles of Safety and Hygiene in a Copper Mine (Podstawy BHP w kopalni miedzi 1972)
Refrain (Refren 1972)
The Bricklayer (Murarz 1973)
First Love (Pierwsza milosc 1974)
X-Ray (Przeswietlenie 1974)
Pedestrian Subway (Przejscie podziemne 1974)
Curriculum Vitae (Zyciorys 1975)
Hospital (Szpital 1976)
Slate (Klaps 1976)
From a Night Porter's Point of View (Z punktu widzenia nocnego portiera 1977)
I Don't Know (Nie wiem 1977)
Seven Women of Different Ages (Siedem kobiet w roznym wieku 1978)
Railway Station (Dworzec 1980)
Talking Heads (Gadajace glowy 1980)
Seven Days a Week (Siedem dni tygodniu 1988)
Personel (Personel TV drama 1975)
The Scar (Blizna 1976)
The Calm (Spokoj 1976)
Camera Buff (Amator 1979)
Short Working Day (Krotki dzien pracy 1981)
No End (Bez konca 1985)
Blind Chance (Przypadek 1987)
The Decalogue (Dekalog 1988)
A Short Film About Killing (Krotki film o zabijaniu 1988)
A Short Film About Love (Krotki film o milosci 1988)
The Double Life of Veronique (La Double vie de Veronique/Podwojne zycie Weroniki 1991)
Three Colors: Blue (Trois couleurs: Bleu/Trzy kolory: Niebieski 1993)
Three Colors: White (Trois couleurs: Blanc/Trzy kolory: Bialy 1994)
Three Colors: Red (Trois couleurs: Rouge/Trzy kolory: Czerwony 1994)
Krzysztof Kieslowski earned numerous awards and nominations throughout his career, dating back to the Krakow Film Festival Golden Hobby-Horse in 1974. The following is a list of awards and nominations earned for his later work.A Short Film About Killing
Bodil Award for Best European Film (1990) Won
Cannes Film Festival FIPRESCI Prize (1988) Won
Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize Won
Cannes Film Festival Nomination for the Palme d'Or (1988)
French Syndicate of Cinema Critics Award for Best Foreign Film (1990) Won
Bodil Award for Best European Film (1991) Won
Venice Film Festival Children and Cinema Award (1989) Won
Venice Film Festival FIPRESCI Prize (1989) Won
The Double Life of Veronique
Argentine Film Critics Association Silver Condor Nomination for Best Foreign Film (1992)
Cannes Film Festival FIPRESCI Prize (1991) Won
Cannes Film Festival Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (1991) Won
Cannes Film Festival Nomination for the Palme d'Or (1991)
French Syndicate of Cinema Critics Award for Best Foreign Film (1992) Won
Warsaw International Film Festival Audience Award (1991) Won
Three Colors: Blue
Cesar Award Nomination for Best Director (1994)
Cesar Award Nomination for Best Film (1994)
Cesar Award Nomination for Best Writing, Original or Adaptation (1994)
Venice Film Festival Golden Ciak Award (1993) Won
Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Award (1993) Won
Venice Film Festival Little Golden Lion Award, Won
Venice Film Festival OCIC Award (1993) Won
Three Colors: White
Berlin International Film Festival Silver Bear for Best Director (1994) Won
Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear Nomination for Best Director (1994)
Three Colors: Red
Academy Award Nomination for Best Director (1995)
Academy Award Nomination for Best Writing (1995)
BAFTA Film Award Nomination for Best Film not in the English Language (1995)
BAFTA Film Award Nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (1995)
BAFTA Film Award Nomination for the David Lean Award for Direction (1995)
Bodil Award for Best Non-American Film (1995) Won
Cannes Film Festival Nomination for the Palme d'Or (1994)
Cesar Award Nomination for Best Director (1995)
Cesar Award Nomination for Best Film (1995)
Cesar Award Nomination for Best Writing, Original or Adaptation (1995)
French Syndicate of Cinema Critics Award for Best Film (1995) Won
Vancouver International Film Festival Most Popular Film (1994) Won