Polish director Krzyzstof Kieslowksi (known internationally mainly for the Trois Couleurs (G) trilogy he directed in the 1990s) made Camera Buff in 1979, long before his reputation had crossed the Polish border in a serious way.
We meet Filip Mosz (Jerzy Stuhr), an unassuming thirty-year-old who works as a purchasing manager for a factory in Wielice, a nothing town whose residents live in gray, pre-fabricated rent-barracks. As the movie begins, Irka (Malgorzata Zabkowska) gives birth to their first child, a daughter. At the time, Polish men were kept away from their wives during childbirth, and instead downed congratulatory vodka with friends. After sleeping off his hangover, Jerzy buys a Russian 8mm camera to record his new daughter’s first steps and words.
Cameras were rare in Poland then – Filip’s cost 2 months of his salary. When the factory director learns Philip has a camera, he orders him to film the company’s 25th anniversary celebration (speeches, visits by dignitaries, a cheesy band). This assignment sparks a fascination with moviemaking; Filip begins to imagine his daily environment filmed, and begins to frame shots with his hands. He forms a film club with the factory’s "cultural" subsidy. He’s the director, and his wiry young friend Witek and a "crew" of other enthusiasts helps him. He submits the resulting movies to the local amateur film federation, headed by the sultry Anna (Ewa Pokas).
After getting some advice from some of the of bald, turtleneck-clad auteurs in the Film Federation, Filip begins coming up with his own ideas for short documentary films, among them a feature about a midget who works in the factory. A brief, hesitant flirtation sparks between Filip and Anna, and shortly after, the midget documentary is shown on Polish television. Filip attends a lecture by an established Polish feature-film director, Krzyzstof Zanussi, and persuades Zanussi to visit drab old Wielice to screen his new movie Camouflage and answer questions afterward. (Zanussi, a contemporary and friend of Kieslowski, plays himself in the film).
Where are Irka and the child while the factory clerk swans off to Warsaw to meet with television producers, or wanders Wielice filming footage, or pursues his chaste little flirtation with Anna the Film Federation chief? Waiting at home in the family’s Spartan apartment. "How could my husband lose just lose interest in me and his own child?" she muses bitterly. She accuses Filip of abandoning her at what was supposed to be the most intense and joyful time of her life. With disarming frankness, he admits guilt. He thought he wanted the “tranquility” family represents, but just cannot suppress the urge to create. Irka moves out.
Conflict is also brewing outside the family. Seemingly innocent scenes in Filip’s documentaries showed skittish functionaries who didn’t want the be filmed, or half-finished public-works projects that the central authorities were told had been successfully completed. This causes problems. Now, Polish censors did tolerate mild social critique at this time, both in the movie and in the real Poland. Thus, the consequences, within the film, aren’t drastic. Filip is forgiven because he’s young and foolish and talented; but his immediate boss, the philosophical stamp-collector Osuch (Jerzy Nowak), is forced into early retirement for giving Filip the funding that led to the embarrassing movies.
Camera Buff has everything we expect from Kieslowski: understated, deep-grooved performances; contemplative pacing that doesn’t drag; moral generosity that never strays into sentimentality. Jerzy Stuhr’s performance as Filip (he is also given co-credit for the script) is a wonder. He goes from ordinary worker to film addict to increasingly confident director without losing his essential schlubbiness. It’s this direct unpretentiousness, combined with his genuine enthusiasm for film-making, which keep the viewer’s sympathy, even as he abandons his young family. Osuch, who loses his job because of Filip’s films, recognizes that Filip’s obsession with film springs from genuine passion, and forgives him in an affecting scene. Osuch warns Filip that the drive to create, once awakened, cannot be choked off. By leaving his life as a purchasing manager behind, Filip enters a a life of struggle and conflict. A quintessentially Kieslowskian scene, framed closely and intensely, as if it were taking place in a confessional.
The DVD features many splendid extras, including a moving interview with the real Zanussi about his long friendship with Kieslowski (who had died before the DVD was prepared). Zanussi gives us a lively, poignant sketch of Kieslowski’s character: Although he could be bitingly anti-clerical, he was deeply hurt when a Jesuit reviewer criticized one of his movies (No End) as being metaphysically un-Christian. Kieslowski turned to feature films from documentaries in part because of the guilt he felt at robbing the subjects of their anonymity. He doubted anyone had the right to film genuine human tears. He stayed in touch with many former documentary subjects and tried to help them, out of the belief that filming someone creates a bond of obligation with them. Kieslowski also fought with the censors (Camera Buff has unmistakable political overtones), and generally despised premieres, festivals, and other film-word frippery.
There are also interviews with the Polish director Agnieszka Holland, and a sprightly American film professor named Annette Insdorf who’s written a book about Kieslowski’s films (oddly enough, she speaks in French, even though the DVD is an American release, and subtitles on the DVD are only in English). If that weren’t enough, thre’s also a 16-minute black-and-white documentary from 1980 called “Talking Heads,” in which Kieslowski asking dozens of ordinary Poles how they would describe themselves, and what they most wish for in life. It’s regular humans, talking about their lives, and it’s just lovely.
Now the bad news. This DVD, apparently, has not been released in Germany. I bought it in the U.S. from the art-house firm Kino Video as part of lovingly-produced 6-DVD set. It’s apparently also available as an English import (check out the ludicrous all-caps summary on the Amazon website!), but not from Kino Video, so it probably won’t have the extras which add so much to the DVD.
Germany, why are you keeping these outstanding movies from your people? Who’s afraid of Krzyzstof Kieslowski?