The White Stuff
The most overlooked film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy is actually the best.
Despite the comfort Karmitz offered, Kieslowski never felt at home outside his homeland. “I can’t imagine life without Poland,” he said in 1991. “I find it very hard to find a place for myself in the West.” That interview took place in Paris, while Kieslowski and his writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz were writing the “Three Colors” screenplays—in Polish. (Kieslowski never learned French.) His closest relationships during “Three Colors” were not with his French and Swiss actors, but with compatriots: Piesiewicz, composer Zbigniew Preisner, and his three Polish cinematographers, all of whom were more directly involved throughout the filmmaking process than is customary on Western film sets.
In White, Karol, penniless and heartsick, smuggles himself back to Warsaw in his own suitcase. When he returns to his old hair salon, he marvels at the new neon sign above the door. “This is Europe now, my friend,” his brother replies. Indeed, White serves as an introduction to the new Eastern bloc; when the film was made, only four years had passed since the ouster of Poland’s Communist government, and the country was lobbying to join the fledgling EU.*
The Poland to which Karol returns is rapaciously capitalist. “This impatience to get rich now,” Kieslowski explains about Warsaw in an interview on the Criterion discs, “the air buzzes with it.” Twice in the film, a character explains that “these days you can buy anything”—once in reference to a gun and once in reference to a corpse. Karol, working security for a penny-ante macher, overhears that IKEA plans a warehouse in a rural district outside the city. He double-crosses his boss, buying up farms in the region for quick resale. Per the trilogy's French-flag-related themes of liberté, égalité, fraternité, White explores equality—but a certain kind of equality, as Kieslowski pointed out. "I don't think anybody really wants to be equal," he said in an interview reprinted in the Criterion set's booklet. "Everybody wants to be more equal."
Soon, newly wealthy and the head of his own import-export firm, Karol’s plotting to get his ex-wife to return to Poland. I won’t give away the results of Karol’s scheme, which are wonderfully unexpected. But they demonstrate that, planted in Polish soil, Karol little resembles the wilting flower into which France transformed him. It’s a reminder that even in a united Europe, for some—like Kieslowski—the differences between nations are still stark and intractable. The current struggles of the EU to manage the economic collapses in Greece and other countries make White’s barbed comedy feel particularly timely; while it remains to be seen whether the EU can endure, it’s clear that one of the chief threats to the union is its citizens’ refusal to give up that which they view as their national birthright. (Poland’s remains one of Europe’s more robust economies—perhaps because that mercenary entrepreneurial spirit remains, or perhaps because the nation has thus far stubbornly resisted switching from the zloty to the euro.)
What’s the legacy of these three films? Many other filmmakers have adopted Red’s infatuation with coincidence and predestination; you can see Kieslowski’s DNA in directors like Alejandro González Iñárritu and Paul Thomas Anderson, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Quentin Tarantino. (Tarantino loved Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique and wrote the role of Bruce Willis’s wife in Pulp Fiction for Irène Jacob; she turned him down because she’d already been cast in Red. The next year, much to Tarantino’s surprise, Pulp upset Red for the Palme d’Or.) The Paris of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, with its missed connections and clockwork fate, seems like Red’s Geneva with the whimsy pushed up to 11.
But White, not Red, looks now like Kieslowski’s finest film, and unfortunately, few contemporary directors explore modern Europe as humanely and engagingly. The Dardennes (The Son) do; so does Aki Kaurismäki in his new film, Le Havre. White is funny without being cruel, romantic without lapsing into sentiment, wise without didacticism. Unlike the other two films in the trilogy, it’s more interested in raising questions than in answering them. In a documentary (also included in the Criterion collection) filmed a year before Kieslowski’s death, the interviewer asked how the new Europe might go about solving its many crises. “If I knew the answer,” the director grumbled, “I wouldn’t be sitting by some stupid fireplace, but in a president’s chair.” He shrugged. “But I don’t know. Knowing isn’t my profession. Not knowing is.”
Correction, Nov. 17, 2011: This article originally stated that Poland had just joined the EU. (Return to corrected sentence.)
Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.