Register Wednesday | March 21 | 2018

Why Lódz Matters

Red, White and Blue director's monochrome homage to Polish city

The late Krzysztof  Kieślowski began his career in a "town full of terrible restaurants and horrible milk bars; full of stinking shitty, pissed, foul toilets; full of ruins, hovels, recesses." Welcome to Łódź, an industrial city often referred to as "the Manchester of Poland." In spite of its apparent flaws, the internationally acclaimed director of The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours Trilogy : Blue, White and Red actually loved the place very much. A new exhibition featuring Kieślowski's understated photos and 1969 documentary, From the City of Łódź, pays tribute to its contradictions.

The Łódź National Film School, from which Kieślowski graduated, was founded in 1948. By the end of World War Two, Poland had been devastated by Soviet and Nazi invasions, with population losses estimated at over seven million and the infrastructure of most cities in ruins. Yet during the short period of time since its inception, the Łódź film school has cultivated the talents of several internationally renowned filmmakers, notably Andrzej Wajda (Generation, Ashes and Diamonds), Krzystoff Zanussi (The Year of the Quiet Sun), and Roman Polanski (Rosemary's Baby, The Pianist).

The Łódź film school provided its students with a surprisingly large degree of freedom for studying filmmaking. Kieślowski recalled in interviews that professors showed the students films, particularly foreign ones, that most of the Polish public would not be allowed to see. The school also gave him solid training in documentary filmmaking, a cinematic form that became a cultural lifeforce in the country from the 1960s onwards. Unlike in the West, documentaries were as important to the public as feature films. They could show life as it really was, unlike the highly ideological fictions propagated in the Communist cultural landscape of post-war Poland.  

Kieślowski's exhibit features photos he took as a film student of the downtrodden faces of Łódź's inhabitants: tired labourers, unemployed men, the elderly-all victims of post-war destitution in their own way. The photos bear witness to the unravelling of the city's industrial prowess, and can be seen as the still life portraits that inspired his seventeen-minute documentary, From the City of Łódź. The film brings the people of Łódź to life, particularly in scenes showing female workers in the city's textile factories. While his photos portray humiliation and suffering, the film shows that life in the city, with its "dilapidated buildings, dilapidated staircases, dilapidated people" was also filled with humour and warmth.

If cities were human, Łódź would be the unequivocal outsider. Yet its people were determined to reach out to one another, seeking laughter and enjoyment. This is most obvious in scenes where textile workers speak proudly of the city's Ciuksza Mandolin Orchestra, popular in the 1960s and threatened by government cultural shutdowns. One toothless, elderly woman explains that when she hears the orchestra play, "life is worth living again". Another describes her tendency to fall into reverie when she hears Ciuksza on the radio, the music leading her away from her drab surroundings.

After Moscow, Łódź was the second-biggest industrial centre in the 19th century Russian Empire. Textile manufacturing was the main industry. Piano virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein, born there in 1887, described it as "the most unhealthy and unhygienic city imaginable. " At the time, gas from the chemical plants polluted the air and black smoke from the chimneys hid the sky. Just like Kieslowski, however, Rubinstein had a deep affection for the city, despite its grey and shabby exterior.

The chemical haze clouding the air and the exploitation of the city's workers was also the subject of Oscar award-winning Andrzej Wajda's 1975 film adaptation of Wladyslaw Reymont's 1899 novel, The Promised Land. The exploitation of workers explored in Wajda's film, and ubiquitous in the city, is also explored in Kieślowski's photos, some of which feature amputees maimed by the dangerous, ancient textile machinery still being used in the late '60s.

Some of the themes in Kieślowski's later films first appear in From the City of Łódź. The director had a knack for finding stories and plots in the most seemingly uneventful situations. In From the City of Łódź, for example, a factory bookkeeper cries in front of co-workers as she celebrates her final day at work before retiring. Her emotional confusion is both painful and fascinating to watch: is she touched by the thoughtful farewell or sad to be at the age where she is forced to leave her job?

And, while this short film relies heavily on footage of people at work, significant attention is nonetheless paid to the way people in Łódź spent their time in more intimate settings. This candid material is remarkable, given the enforced socialist policies in Poland during Kieślowski's era. It is also a trademark of his later work, which obsessively examines the choices individuals make to maintain their individuality while remaining part of society. Take less-known films such as Blind Chance (1981), a film that gives three variations on the life of a young medical student. The different political choices he makes in each segment affect his personal life in dramatically different ways. Later, The Double Life of Véronique (1991) tells the story of two identical women, one living in Poland, the other in France. Both characters attempt to live very private lives, and in doing so, are oblivious to the political changes taking place around them.

After 1980, Kieślowski stopped making documentary films altogether. For the director, who described himself as an "optimistic fatalist," filming "real outsiders" was risky, especially under communist authorities. In interviews with Danusia Stok he explained that for filmmakers, being summoned by the police or having canisters of film confiscated was relatively commonplace. This happened to him in 1980, during the filming of one of his later documentaries Dworzec (Station). Putting the subjects of his documentaries in danger vis-à-vis the authorities for simply telling their stories-however banal or apolitical they might be-was not something he was willing to risk. The nature of the documentary process also troubled him deeply, particularly the moral weight of exposing real misery without the slightest hope of respite for the subjects being filmed.

In the final scenes of From the City of Łódź, as the camera pans across the city's factories and apartment blocks, a lone crooner in a city park sings : "You won't find this town on the map, but you'll find it somewhere."  Although the city remains overlooked by many critics and even the most die-hard fans of European cinema, Łódź has nonetheless been fertile ground for film talent. And as Kieślowski reminds us powerfully through his photography, it is a city where the post-war inhabitants felt that they too had been forgotten.