Before his 1996 death, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski developed a belated reputation as one of Europe's most challenging filmmakers, engaged in stranding desperate characters in shifting moral landscapes and observing, unblinking, while they stumbled. Because Kieslowski worked primarily in a nominally communist country that was uneasy about exporting his films, international acclaim eluded him until his final set of masterpieces: The Decalogue, The Double Life Of Veronique, and the "Three Colors" trilogy (Blue, White, and Red), all of which consciously avoided commenting directly on socialism's decay. But in the documentaries and features Kieslowski shot in the '70s and early '80s, the state of his state was very much an issue.
The four early Kieslowski films just released on DVD—1976's The Scar, 1979's Camera Buff, 1981's Blind Chance, and 1985's No End—deserve to be counted among his acknowledged classics, and not just because all the discs contain samples of Kieslowski's short films and in-depth interviews with his collaborators. Even the weakest of these features holds the philosophical complexity of The Decalogue, as well as an eye-opening emphasis on the ramifications of Polish bureaucracy. In The Scar, Franciszek Pieczka deals with the complaints of shortsighted locals when he opens a new factory in a small town. In Camera Buff, Jerzy Stuhr gets drafted to be the cinematographer for his company's official functions and becomes subject to his bosses' artistic demands. Blind Chance's young hero (Boguslaw Linda) imagines three separate but cosmically intertwined possibilities for his life: as a party leader, a reactionary, and a scholarly homebody. And in No End, a lawyer for dissidents dies and leaves his wife (Grazyna Szapolowska) to find another manager for his most troublesome open case.
In an interview on the Camera Buff disc, Kieslowski crony Krzysztof Zanussi defends the toughness of his friend's work, saying "There's no such thing as perception without effort." Still, Kieslowski's films display plenty of visual dynamics to compensate for their hard cores. Kieslowski leavens the docu-realism of The Scar and Camera Buff with striking found imagery: a throng of workers in gas masks, the contrast of industrial-gray office parks and political pageantry, a man idly watching his disappearing reflection in a window, and so on. Kieslowski also remains focused on the minutest impact of deep crises. He shows how Szapolowska's grief in No End upsets the precarious balance keeping up her adventurous sex life, her busy professional life, and the rewards of motherhood; in Camera Buff, Kieslowski notes how Stuhr gets into trouble as he begins to use film as a substitute for memory.
Kieslowski's work slips a bit whenever he has characters stand up and state the theme, which they do too often. But since his films usually maintain a dozen or so sub-themes, they all have depths to plumb. Of the recent releases, Blind Chance takes the prize. Linda's possible futures split into three while he's running to catch a train, but Kieslowski keeps his audience aware of the infinite branching points in every life, while insisting that people don't fundamentally change, particularly not in a country where shared ideals have curdled into mere authority.