Kieślowski’s Moments of Moral Restlessness

Camera Buff (1979)


How old are you12? Who are you? What do you most wish for? So asked Krzysztof Kieślowski in his short documentary, Talking Heads (Gadające Głowy, 1980). People answered, from the infant in the first shot to the 100-year-old woman in the last. For Kieślowski, his films seem to never stop asking these questions, constantly opening up room for even more. What is a moment? When does it end? Moments are fractal, he seems to imply through his cinema; they can both expand exponentially into life-changing twists of fate and shrink into themselves as missed chances that remain unexplored.

Bring up Kieślowski and the question of ethics will soon follow. Perhaps you think of those same talking heads, dramatically lit and perfectly framed? The face, for Kieślowski, was always an ethical question. He uses the miniature—a gesture, an expression, a gaze—to imply a universe of possibilities. An especially dramaturgical filmmaker, he was consistently a director and writer preoccupied with the significance of moments. A single one can change your life; a gesture might reshape it. Moments are stolen from you—at work, in the tedium; you fight for them as often as you spend your time searching for the special ones. Moments can define your life; moments can end your life. In Camera Buff (Amator, 1979), Filip (Jerzy Stuhr) experiences three wonderful moments that change his life.


“All will be painted white,” says Filip as he makes a sweeping gesture in what will be his baby daughter’s room.


The first moment is life—the day after the birth of Filip’s daughter. He tries to go to the hospital to see his newborn daughter and wife, but the doctor refuses him entry. Filip, а factory worker, recently bought an 8mm Quartz 2 film camera in order to film his daughter. He pleads with the doctor, showing him his newly acquired camera; the doctor reacts positively and asks to see it. 

As soon as he has the camera in his hands, the doctor stands up from his chair, moves away from his desk, and pulls aside a curtain, revealing an impressive view of three floors of the hospital—people smoking and talking, framed picturesquely by beautiful staircases. About 10 minutes into the film, the strange and subtle power of the camera is revealed: it has the capacity to document for the future, to give Filip privileged access, and, in a sense, to reveal something that would otherwise remain unseen. 


The second moment is work. Filip’s boss discovers that Filip possesses a camera and commissions him to film their annual banquet. With little encouragement needed, Filip, increasingly fascinated with film, starts recording everything—the changing of his daughter’s diaper (to the disapproval of his wife), construction work on the street under his window, pigeons on the windowsill while waiting for the officials’ post-banquet meeting to end (to the disapproval of his boss). There are moments everywhere that call out to be captured.

Having finished the documentary film of the banquet, he finds himself in a situation where he’s partly forced by his boss, partly persuaded by a representative of an amateur filmmakers’ federation, to submit his film to their festival. This development, as well as Filip’s growing obsession, upsets his wife, Irka (Malgorzata Zabkowska), leading to a growing distance between them. 

Camera Buff’s original title in Polish is Amator—in English, amateur. There are many ways in which the significance of this is evident in the film. Granted, Filip’s filmmaking brings a certain naïveté and passion with which a professional might have grown disillusioned. If we turn the common perception of amateurism on its head, however, the figure of the amateur can become a radical one—someone not enmeshed in regulations, established practices, or even experience. Filip films everything and everyone. Even while waiting for his boss’s post-banquet meeting, even while on the train ride home, his camera packed away, he makes a framing gesture with his hands. 

Filip sees through his camera everywhere, because for him it is a way of seeing.


The third moment is the meaning of life. Filip doesn’t understand why Irka is upset with him. He has found the meaning of life, he says.

At a key point in the film, Filip argues with his wife about his changing priorities, and she turns her back on him and starts walking away. Filip, seemingly unable to stop himself, makes a framing gesture with his hands while watching her leave with their baby daughter.


The moment is Poland, 1979. Amator wins several top prizes at some of the biggest film festivals of the time. It’s also widely praised by critics. His second feature film, it marks Kieślowski’s firm move away from documentary filmmaking, and will be declared a masterpiece in the future. 

As Kieślowski’s first film directly addressing his experience of documentary filmmaking, it occupies an intriguing place in his career, and offers insight into the development of his style and issues of interest. As he writes in Kieślowski on Kieślowski, his fictional work is largely based in opposition to the documentary genre:

And I noticed, when making documentaries, that the closer I wanted to get to an individual, the more the subjects which interested me shut themselves off. That’s probably why I changed to features…I’m frightened of those real tears. In fact, I don’t 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. 

Kieślowski’s career in narrative films exists in opposition to his work as a documentary filmmaker; what was once out of bounds became fully available to him, but in a different form. To blur the boundaries even further, Amator itself includes real-life people:

There were actors in Camera Buff who played given characters but apart from that there were people who exist in real life, who have names and appear under these names. Krzysztof Zanussi is a film director in real life, who from time to time takes part in “evenings with the director” in small towns. And in the film Camera Buff, he’s a film director in exactly the same way.

The relationship to documentary film in Camera Buff is not a complete termination of it, but a halfway moment—an amalgamation of the documentary and the fictional. The fear of “real tears” remains, especially considering the “people who exist in real life.” It’s not that Kieślowski was afraid of photographing real things; rather, he was asking himself whether he had “the right to photograph them.”


In Kieślowski’s films, moments double and circle back, disappear or split in two or three, but the politics are always present. In Blind Chance (Przypadek, 1987), moments restart and split in different directions. Witek, the protagonist, becomes involved with the underground political resistance in one timeline, and the Party in another. Similarly, in La double vie de Véronique (1991), the presence of political protests is the backdrop of Véronique’s first encounter with her double. With time, Kieślowski moved away from explicitly acknowledging political context, but by doing so made this very omission a political act.

Even when engaging directly with politics, Kieślowski relied on the symbolic potency of the fleeting moments hidden in everyday gestures. In his early short films, gestures often act as central focal points. In The Office (Urzad, 1966), for example, the lack of narrative is dependent on the facelessness of the bureaucratic office workers, often shown merely through their hands interacting with various paperwork. Their demanding and loud voices, however, dominate the film, particularly given the uncertain voices of the citizens requesting help with their paperwork. Kieślowski’s gestures portray relationships—often failed attempts at communication, only sometimes successful ones. 

In Blind Chance, Witek’s threefold repeated run after the train consists of the repetitions of several people’s gestures. In this case, however, the gestures are not merely about mediality, but about opening them up in the narrative to what Leo Braudy calls “potential for significance.” The spilled drink, the possible tripping over, the conductor that chases Witek—those are not gestures for the sake of only making visible an action. Rather, they’re about potential encounters and interactions—and, ultimately, different timelines. Similar parallels could be drawn to La double vie de Véronique, and the way that Véronique inhabits the world through her gestures—moving her hand in tune with the music on the tram, holding and twisting the glass marble on the train, or even the music conductor hiding from Véronique during her audition and motioning commands to the pianist. It’s in no way an accident that it’s on the bus that Véronique is first seen by her double, Weronika. Kieślowski shows that the momentary gesture is what allows for either recognition or connection.


The moment of departure. Irka and Filip are fighting. He’s surprised and angry; she’s disappointed and determined. She wants him to stop prioritizing filmmaking, while he sees it as the thing that finally gives meaning to his life. Irka cannot keep living like this and makes her way to leave. As she passes through the doorway of the bedroom, making her way to the front door, he makes a framing gesture with his hands, unable not to see the moment as cinematic. The audience sees her framed the way Filip sees her as she leaves. Irka turns around, only to see Filip’s gesture. She’s not an object; she has the power to gaze back. 

At that moment, Filip’s gesture is no longer only about him and his static observation of the changing vista outside the train carriage. This time, the frame gazes back at him—he has to confront the very real implications of his choices and his wife leaving.


These moments are real. There is, however, the still underexplored tension between the presence of “real people” like Zanussi and the director’s shift to narrative filmmaking. Camera Buff appears to occur in a space between documentary and narrative; it fictionalizes, but also grounds itself in real people, events, and Kieślowski’s own experiences. From another perspective, its in-between-ness is evident through its clear rooting in realist sensibility. As such, the film stands out in stark contrast to the more theological-ethical preoccupations of his latter films.

The films that follow Camera Buff are preoccupied with issues of ethics and the choices that make up a life. There are no divine principles involved, though there’s a nearly metaphysical ethical framework of connection and responsibility—from Blind Chance’s interconnectivity of timelines to La double vie de Véronique’s interconnectivity of lives. To grapple with his conflicting feelings about the problem of photographing “real tears,” Kieślowski opens up a potential space for the audience to reflect on this very problem as well, not only as a filmmaking issue, but also one framed in exclusively human terms.

Through Camera Buff, Kieślowski not only addresses what Slavoj Žižek in The Fright of Real Tears refers to as the “fundamental lesson of dialectics”—that specific conditions produce universality—but also poignantly reflects on the conditions for its manifestation. The openness of the world in the film is challenged in the last scene, in which Filip begins recalling the beginning of the film, thus making a full circle in a diegetic self-enclosed totality. Considering Filip’s journey, however, closing the film with a reference to its opening completely reconfigures that opening. The narrative of Camera Buff is not a self-enclosed circle, then, but a spiral circling back to the same spot, only now guided by a deeper understanding.

The end of the film serves as a final form of Filip’s gesture. If the framing gesture begins in the scene in which he describes his daughter’s room, it finds its culmination in the last scene of the film. At this point, Filip has not only been abandoned by his wife, but has also become disillusioned with what he thought was a righteous cause and the purpose behind his filmmaking. The final scenes show him alone in his apartment, symbolically shut away from the world; he’s despondent, not fully clothed, and sleeping on his sofa. However, it’s exactly at this point that Kieślowski achieves closure. At the very end of the film, Filip picks up his camera and hesitatingly points it at himself. Breathing heavily and visibly anxious, he starts describing the night that Irka’s waters broke: “She woke up at 4 in the morning. I was eating bread. That was a year ago. It must have hurt a lot.” 

Filip is no longer concerned with the world around him as something to be seen. Rather, he realizes that the only thing he has real access to is himself and his own way of seeing. The distance between what he sees and himself has shrunk. He’s in what he films, literally and figuratively. He’s the “I” in “I was eating bread,” but he’s also, for the first time, in front of the camera. His gesture has thus been transformed into a doing, rather than a pure making visible as it has been so far.

It’s here that the film comes full-circle, and not just in the way that it references its own beginning. The body of the film watched Filip see the world around him and understand the nature of the relationship with his environment that his way of seeing creates; now, at the end, he has finally seen himself. In this way, the framing gesture finds its ultimate completion in becoming obsolete. Both the framing gesture and the final scene become moments of ambiguity, even as they reframe the film both in terms of what precedes each particular scene and what succeeds them. Camera Buff is more than a narrative film with documentary elements; it’s a reflection on the documentary medium that makes the genre itself a frame through which to consider its limits.