The director Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941–1996) needs little introduction. An icon of arthouse cinema, this habitual pessimist – as the man described himself – found a unifying and universal film language through his unique grasp of human emotion.

In the early years of Kieślowski’s life, his path to international cinematic fame was far from certain. After dropping out of firefighting school, the 16-year-old Kieślowski enrolled at a technical theatre college run by his uncle. It was here that he developed an interest in becoming a theatre director; lacking the prerequisite qualifications for this field, he worked as a theatre tailor and instead set his sights on the more achievable goal of studying film directing. On his third attempt, he was admitted to the National Film School in Łódź, from where he graduated in 1968.

Kieślowski’s graduation film – From the City of Łódź (1968) – was a short documentary showing the everyday lives of the inhabitants of Łódź. This would set the tone for the first decade or so of the director’s career, a period during which he made more than 20 documentary shorts depicting a variety of characters and settings through a non-judgemental lens. However, the director’s experiences with state censorship while working on some of these films led him to decide that he could better portray the realities of life in Poland through fictional film.

The television film Personnel (1975) would be Kieślowski’s first non-documentary feature, and was followed by The Scar (1976), Camera Buff (1979) and Blind Chance (1981). These films represent a phase of social cinema, in which communities and individuals are faced with ethical quandaries arising from the socio-political situation in Poland. No End (1984) marked two important shifts in Kieślowski’s film-making: it was the beginning of a screenwriting collaboration with lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and hinted at a more metaphysical narrative turn.

The 10-part television series Dekalog (1988) cemented Kieślowski and Piesiewicz’s working relationship, also bringing the director global recognition in its astute examination of the moral choices faced by the residents of a fictional Warsaw housing block. This was followed by The Double Life of Veronique (1990) and the Three Colours trilogy (1993–1994), a set of French co-productions that won awards at the Cannes, Venice and Berlin film festivals.

In 1994, Kieślowski retired from film-making. Just two years later, the director passed away. He leaves behind an indelible filmic imprint: a cinema that, while often bleak and challenging, is ultimately an acknowledgement of our hopes, our fears, our suffering; an honest reflection on that which makes us human.

On the 80th anniversary of his birth and in partnership with ICA, we invite you to enjoy a selection of Kieślowski’s documentary shorts, as well as Dekalog in its entirety.

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