Krzysztof Kieślowski’s escape from documentaries

Universality is not the neutral container of particular formations, their common measure, the passive (back)ground on which the particulars fight their battles, but this battle itself, the struggle leading from one particular formation to another. Take Krzysztof Kieślowski’s passage from documentary to fiction cinema: we do not simply have two species of cinema, documentary and fiction; fiction emerges out of the inherent limitation of the documentary. Kieślowski’s starting point was shared with all the cineastes in the Socialist countries: the conspicuous gap between the drab social reality and the bright, optimistic image which pervaded the heavily censored official media. The first reaction to the fact that, in Poland, social reality was “unrepresented,” as Kieślowski put it, was, of course, the move toward a more adequate representation of real life in all its drabness and ambiguity – in short, an authentic documentary approach:

“There was a necessity, a need – which was very exciting for us – to describe to the world. The Communist world had described how it should be and not how it really was…If Something hasn’t been described, then it doesn’t officially exist. So that if we start describing it, we bring it to life.”

I need only mention Hospital, Kieślowski’s 1976 documentary, in which the camera follows orthopedic surgeons on a 32-hour shift. Instruments fall apart in their hands, the electric current keeps breaking, there are shortages of the most basic materials, but the doctors persevere hour after hour, and with humor…Then, however, the obverse experience set in, best captured by the slogan used recently to publicize a Hollywood movie: “It’s so real, it must be fiction!” – at the most radical level, one can portray the Real of subjective experience only in the guise of a fiction. Toward the end of the documentary First Love (1974), in which the camera follows a young unmarried couple during the girl’s pregnancy, through their wedding, and the delivery of the baby, the father is shown holding the newborn baby in his arms and crying – Kieślowski reacted to the obscenity of such unwarranted probing into the other’s intimacy with the “fright of real tears.” His decision to move documentaries to fiction films was thus, at its most radical, an ethical one:

“Not everything can be described. That’s the documentary’s great problem. It catches itself as if in its own trap…If I’m making a film about love, I can’t go into a bedroom if real people are making love there…I noticed, when making documentaries, that the closer I wanted to get to an individual, the more objects which interested me shut themselves off.
That’s probably why I changed to features. There’s no problem there. I need a couple to make love in bed, that’s fine. Of course, it might be difficult to find an actress who’s willing to take off her bra, but then you just find one who is…I can even buy some glycerine, put some drops in her eyes and the actress will cry. I manged to photograph some real tears several times. It’s something completely different. But now I’ve got glycerine. I’m frightened of real tears. In fact, I don’t even know whether I’ve got the right to photograph them. At such times I feel like somebody who’s found himself in a realm which is, in fact, out of bounds. That’s the main reason why I escaped from documentaries.”

The crucial intermediary in this passage from documentary to fiction is Camera Buff (1979), the portrait of a man who, because of his passion for the camera, loses his wife, child, and job – a fiction film about a documentary filmmaker. So there is a domain of fantasmatic intimacy which is marked by a “No trespassers!” sign and should be approached only via fiction, if one is to avoid pornographic obscenity. This is why the French Veronique in The Double Life of Veronique rejects the puppeteer: he wants to penetrate her too much, which is why, toward the end, after he tells her the story of her double life, she is deeply hurt and escapes her father. “Concrete universality” is a name for this process through which fiction explodes documentary from within – for the way the emergence of fiction cinema resolves the inherent deadlock of documentary cinema. (Or, in philosophy, the point is not to conceive eternity as opposed to temporality, but eternity as it emerges from within our temporal experience – or, in an even more radical way, as Schelling did it, to conceive time itself as a subspecies of eternity, as the resolution of a deadlock of eternity.)
—excerpt from “The Parallax View” by Slavoj Žižek with quotes from Kieślowski

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