Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (1999)

By Annette Insdorf

Insdorf’s is a terribly frustrating book. She seems the perfect candidate for the job of writing such an auteur study. As a professor in Columbia University’s Graduate Film Division and a personal translator and friend of Kieslowski, she has the experience, vocabulary, and intimate acquaintance necessary for successfully melding biography, research, and analysis.

She also sets out with the right questions in mind: How was Kieslowski’s body of work shaped by personal experience, particularly by his life under Communism? What other directors, artists, and thinkers shaped his aesthetic? What preoccupations, both ideological and stylistic, form the backbone of his work? What precipitated his move from documentary to narrative film, and how did each influence the other?

Unfortunately, in attempting to answer all of these questions (and in only 180 pages), Insdorf fails to address any of them adequately. My main beef with the book is that I can’t figure out who it was written for. It reads like Kieslowski for Dummies, but I find it difficult to imagine the “Dummies” audience investing the time and energy required of a work like, say, The Decalogue. I would imagine that those of us willing to wrestle with the complexities of Kieslowski’s films will typically study his life with a similar rigor.

One more (admittedly petty) complaint: Insdorf’s writing can be plain maddening at times. Lines like this just make me cringe:

For events unfolding in the present, theater is perhaps the most fitting artistic medium. And for a story told in the past, the novel is the perfect form. Motion pictures have certainly carved out a special niche for dealing with the future. (53)

My experience with Insdorf’s book has not been all bad, however. I would actually recommend it, in fact, for certain purposes. The majority of Double Lives, Second Chances is devoted to Insdorf’s own formal analysis of each film. While I find the latter chapters fairly useless, her discussion of his documentary work and early fiction is invaluable for the simple reason that those films are not available in America, nor are they likely to be any time soon. She provides a short summary and stylistic analysis of each film.

I guess I should also compliment Insdorf (in a back-handed way) for inspiring me to learn more about the film industry under Communism. She often refers casually to other Eastern European filmmakers who I am now curious to study. And her inclusion of some interesting quotes from Kieslowski reinforce what I suspected even before beginning the book. I pulled the wrong one from my shelf. I should have begun with Kieslowski on Kieslowski.

[The Calm] has nothing to do with politics. It simply tells the story of a man who wants very little and can’t get it. – Kieslowski

Addendum: I realize that I might have unfairly criticized Insdorf for simply not giving me the book that I wanted to read. I wanted a fairly objective study that interspersed more biographical and political context into the formal analysis. I wonder if Insdorf’s personal relationship with Kieslowski — she recounts a very touching story of his picking her and her mother up at the Warsaw airport and driving them two hours to visit Krakow — may have left her somewhat biased. She “sounds” at times like a big fan, unwilling to criticize him or his work when he perhaps deserves it. I imagine she would be wonderful to listen to, though, with wonderful stories to tell. She also translated for Truffaut at times.