Before Krzysztof Kieslowski became the standard-bearer for the latter-day European art film with ravishing portraits of unspeakably beautiful women living their lives under unutterably mysterious circumstances, he was a gruff but adventurous chronicler, in both documentary and narrative films, of lives lived in the rather more drab surroundings of communist Poland. Well, money changes everything. It was the arrival of funding from Western sources that bestowed the gift of abstraction: Beginning with the internationally-celebrated The Double Life of Veronique in 1991, it made Kieslowski’s expressions of ennui beautiful. But in the 1980s, Kieslowski had less time for beauty.
He was fascinated, however, by the metaphysics of everyday life. The everything-is-connected reverie of his Three Colors trilogy is prefigured, somewhat, by his mammoth, biblically-inspired TV project, The Decalogue. And while the supernatural undertones of Veronique found their first stirrings in the ghostly visitations of No End, it was Blind Chance that pointed the way. Kieslowski acknowledged that Blind Chance represented a departure from his earlier work. “Blind Chance,” he told interviewer Danusia Stok, “is no longer a description of the outside world but rather of the inside world. It’s a description of the powers which meddle with our fate, which push us one way or another.” What’s more, the picture’s a bridge between the social realism of Kieslowski’s first few films and the ethically-driven high concepts of his later work. Blind Chance is not his best movie, but it may be closest to the center of his cinematic universe.
Where Kieslowski gave the pretty and fragile Véronique two lives, he burdened Blind Chance‘s young protagonist, Witek (Boguslaw Linda), with three. The tripartite narrative branches off from a single event — Witek’s tardy arrival at a train station, where he sprints down the platform to try to catch an already-departing train to Warsaw. In one story thread, a chance encounter on that train leads Witek to fall in with the authorities, and the eventual consequences are woeful due to his naiveté. In a second thread, Witek misses the train and gets into a fight with a policeman that results in his arrest. Sentenced to community service, he makes friends in the Solidarity movement and becomes involved with the resistance, publishing anti-communist literature. And in what may be the most catastrophic scenario of the three, Witek consciously abjures politics and instead pursues an ordinary family life and career in medicine, leading him to an especially blunt — and, worse, fundamentally random — fate.
The undergirding subject, of course, is personal engagement, or disengagement, with politics, and the degree to which chance encounters influence personal choices that can dramatically redirect one’s destiny. With its unflattering depiction of Polish communism, Blind Chance was a bold project; though it was made under the influence of the burgeoning Solidarity movement in 1981, it was completed just after a communist crackdown and declaration of martial law. As a result, the film went unreleased until 1987, when it was issued in a lightly-censored version. Yet Blind Chance is not stridently ideological. Kieslowski at least evinces sympathy for those who buy into the promise of communism (“Every generation yearns for light,” declares Witek’s communist friend Werner, played by Tadeusz Lomnicki, in a lecture to college students early in the film), although he emphasizes Witek’s utter guilelessness as a communist functionary. Witek’s misplaced confidences precipitate the arrest of his girlfriend, an active anti-communist who blames Witek for bringing scrutiny to her anti-government activities.
In the second segment, Witek fits more easily into the ranks of the dissidents, but Kieslowski shows how their camaraderie turns to suspicion and mistrust when Witek is suspected of betraying them. It’s here that Kieslowski vividly captures the mood of Solidarity; one scene in particular shows a folksinger delivering a protest anthem for an apartment full of activists of all ages, and it has the presence of cinéma vérité. That kind of specificity of detail largely falls away in the third sequence, during which Witek mostly follows his chosen vocation as a doctor and carefully avoids either joining the Party or expressing any discontent with it, even when colleagues ask him to take a stand. His reward for this disengagement is a family. In one of the film’s loveliest scenes, Witek stands in his dark apartment and looks towards the bathroom where his wife is standing, completely nude and bathed in light. A secular expression, I suppose, of heaven.
Cinematographer Krzysztof Pakulski crafts these images and others skilfully but economically, with a considered yet unpretentious style that relies on decisive key lighting and unobtrusive fill to give the darker and moodier scenes an atmosphere of creeping moral jeopardy. More brightly-lit scenes, like the one where Witek is sent to a hospital where dissidents are holding the doctors captive, tend towards a flatter documentary appearance. A few shots of Witek, especially those in which he seems to be contemplating his inner life rather than the world around him (an example is the scene in which Witek #2 converts to Catholicism and offers a little prayer where he beseeches God simply to exist), have the shallow-focus look that Kieslowski would return to in later films, as Witek’s surroundings are thrown into soft bokeh—the fuzzy, indistinct backgrounds seemingly hinting at the film’s more spiritual concerns.
The mainstream critical line on Blind Chance is that it reveals Kieslowski’s belief that while the trajectories of our lives are unalterably influenced by chance encounters, the way we carry ourselves as humans may remain the same. Witek comes across as a fundamentally decent fellow, and Kieslowski looks to demonstrate that a moral person could fit in as either an apparatchik or a dissident. It’s significant that Witek’s father dies before he decides to travel to Warsaw, since his subsequent decisions are influenced by surrogate father figures. In the first thread it’s Werner, the aging communist he meets on the train; in the second, Stefan, the priest organizing the local resistance; and in the third, it’s the dean of the medical school who urges Witek to stay on and get his PhD.
But in all three stories Kieslowski suggests a lack of engagement on Witek’s part that makes him easily influenced. As a communist, he seems uncommitted to party politics, and wrongly imagines his fellow communists are sentimental enough not to arrest the woman he loves. As a dissident, he avoids discovery because he’s busy falling in love with a woman instead of printing subversive literature, but his co-conspirators suspect his absence indicates he was cooperating with the authorities. Finally, as a doctor, he strives to avoid taking sides, but in time feels his options narrow as his personal allegiance to the dean inexorably turns political in itself. In fact, that third segment of the picture, in which Witek turns his back on both communism and Catholicism in a bid for an ordinary life, reminded me directly of the fantasy sequence at the end of The Last Temptation of Christ, where Jesus imagines himself as a happy mortal. Witek shelters himself from political and religious affiliations, but the film climaxes with a clear assertion that chaos will yet have its way with him. The ending of Blind Chance is so bleak that it qualifies as a very dark joke, a punchline landed by a mischievous but angry deity. In Kieslowski’s communist Poland, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t — but to hell with you for trying to take the easy way out.
The Blu-ray Disc
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Blind Chance is sourced from a 2012 restoration performed by Warsaw’s Tor Film Studio. Source elements (camera negative and a 35mm print) were scanned at 4K and a digital restoration took place at 2K; the film is windowboxed to 1.72:1 for some reason, contrary to the box’s claim of 1.66:1. The results are marvellous, despite an often monochromatic colour palette. Those images are livened up considerably by this Blu-ray’s ability to distinguish the many shades of blue, grey, green, and brown that characterize Kieslowski’s Poland, as well as its organic reproduction of the original grain structure. (As with other Criterion titles, artifact patterns are visible in the said grain on close inspection in step-frame mode; I find them invisible when played at full-speed under typical viewing conditions, but your mileage may vary.) The video bit rate is pegged at about 36 Mbps for most of the running time, dipping lower occasionally, during exceptionally dark scenes. Dynamic range is excellent and shadow detail robust with no apparent crushing of black levels, and the presentation is richly detailed. The Polish-language audio, presented in LPCM 2.0 stereo, was supervised by the original sound mixer (Michal Zarnecki) and is impressive given the film’s vintage. Dialogue is clean and clear, FX are crisp, and Wojciech Kilar’s score is reproduced smoothly without any obvious distortion.
Criterion is billing this as an “uncensored” version of Blind Chance, which isn’t quite correct. Several scenes cut before the 1987 release have been restored, though one shot — it apparently depicts Witek being beaten by police after an altercation with a transit officer — exists as audio only. (A title appears on screen to explain that this “censored fragment” couldn’t be restored.) A separate 10-minute supplement assembles those sections of the film that were altered by the authorities. The untouched material is in black-and-white while the censored segments appear in colour.
In 1080p where applicable, the extra features are slim for a Criterion release. An 18-minute short, “Tadeusz Sobolewski: Blind Chance Unshelved”, has the Polish critic discussing the film at some length, considering it in the context of Kieslowski’s work and the “carnival of Solidarity” in Poland during production. He pays special attention to Linda’s performance, noting that the actor had the misfortune of appearing in four “excellent” 1981 releases that were shelved or shown briefly in theatres, including this one. And he argues that Blind Chance is “a key film” for Kieslowski: “It’s like his last will.”
Criterion has also ported over a pretty good five-minute interview with director Agnieszka Holland that originally appeared on a 2003 DVD release of Blind Chance. She recalls watching a rough cut of the picture with the journalist Hanna Krall, a friend of Kieslowski’s, that was in poor shape (“I thought it was awful”), but the cloud had a silver lining: Kieslowski had time for weeks of reshoots, during which he found the film’s “metaphysical dimension,” Holland says. “It was a philosophical quest that was very personal and new for him without being too ready-made.” She reveals that Kieslowski considered but abandoned the idea of a U.S. remake. “Later, a number of films just flat-out stole the concept,” she recalls, giving the sideeye to Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run. The fold-out booklet contains “The Conditional Mood,” a nice, thorough essay by critic Dennis Lim that considers the film in terms of Kieslowski’s oeuvre as well as Polish political history, plus “Chance or Fate,” the surprisingly brief passage from Danusia Stok’s 1993 book Kieslowski on Kieslowski in which the director describes the picture in his own words.