Behind the Camera: Polandís Best Cinematographers

If the music unifies The Decalogue so that the ten films hang together as a series, then the cinematography serves as the counterpart to that idea because there is a subtle change in visual style from episode to episode. Nine of Polandís best cinematographers worked on The Decalogue, with each assigned to a different episode, except for Piotr Sobocinski who photographed two.

Originally, Kieslowski had intended that a different person direct each episode. Because he had cowritten the series with friend and colleague Krzysztof Piesiewicz , he thought he could allocate one episode to each of ten up-and-coming directors. But, according to Kieslowski, it was precisely because he had cowritten every episode that he could not let go, and when the time came he "wanted to do the whole lot myself." To prevent the series from becoming visually repetitious, he decided to use a different cinematographer for each.

The Decalogue affords a perfect opportunity to understand the contribution of the cinematographer to film. In general, the director consults with his cinematographer, or director of photography, to achieve his desired mood, imagery, and overall visual conception. The cinematographer is then responsible for the lighting, the specific composition, camera movement, and the choice of camera, lenses, filters, and film stock. The best cinematographers establish a style or a specialty that characterizes their films: That style can be documentary-like or standard studio style; it can be atmospheric or harshly realistic. In Poland, cinematographers have more creative input than in other film industries. They design the filmís look while the director concentrates on the script. According to Slawomir Idziak who lensed Episode 5, Kieslowski depended exclusively on his cinematographers to create the world of his films, meaning it was up to them to block the scenes, compose the shots, and design the lighting scheme.

Each of the cinematographers on The Decalogue had their individual strengths and technical preferences, which can be discerned upon repeated viewings. Some of them, including those singled out below, went on to experience major careers outside Poland, in which they worked on international coproductions or gained acclaim as the cinematographers of big-budget Hollywood features. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism in the Eastern Bloc countries, the government funds that provided the fuel for the Eastern Bloc film industries dwindled. Though Polandís film industry was in better shape than most, it still faltered because it had to compete with other industries for scarce public money in the new free-market economy. Thus, many filmmakers and personnel, including cinematographers, left Poland for work in other countries.

Piotr Sobocinski

The late Piotr Sobocinski was the only cinematographer on The Decalogue to handle two episodes - "Episode 3: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" and "Episode 9: Thou shalt not covet thy neighborís house." Both episodes make extensive use of scenes in low-key lighting (a dark lighting style), particularly Episode 3, which takes place in the span of one night and involves peculiar lighting challenges such as a morgue and a drunk tank. Piotr was the son of legendary Polish cinematographer Witold Sobocinski, whose films were made at a time when political barriers prevented the western world from seeing much of his work. Witold also taught at the famous National Film, Television and Theatre School at Lodz, so it is no surprise that son Piotr graduated from Lodz, following in his fatherís footsteps.

Piotr Sobocinski established a connection with Kieslowski while working on The Decalogue, which resulted in his lensing Red, one of the Three Colors trilogy. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his photography on that film. In the early 1990s, he moved from Poland after working with director Marta Meszaros on The Seventh Room, and then afterwards, he worked exclusively on Hollywood films. His photography on Hearts in Atlantis for director Scott Hicks, on Twilight for Robert Benton, and on Angel Eyes for Luis Mandoki revealed his proclivity for low-key techniques resulting in dark, moody tones. Sobocinski was often singled out in reviews for his work, with one reviewer noting that his photography on Twilight made it seem as though "we were watching the action through a glass of bourbon." While beginning work on the film Trapped in 2001, Sobocinski died suddenly on location in Toronto, Canada. Hearts in Atlantis, the last of his films to be released, was dedicated to him.

Slawomir Idziak

Slawomir Idziak did the cinematography for one of the most acclaimed episodes of The Decalogue and also the one with the most noticeable visual style, "Episode 5: Thou shalt not kill." Idziak relied heavily on filters to achieve a gritty, washed out, monochromatic look that fit the harsh subject matter. Though Kieslowski balked at the heavy use of filters at first, Idziak would not do the episode without them. Prior to The Decalogue the veteran cinematographer had worked with Kieslowski on a few television films; afterward, Idziak reteamed with him to lens The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colors: Blue.

Idziak began his career in 1969 as a cinematographer for films for Polish television. He first gained prominence for his collaborations with Krzysztof Zanussi, another of Polandís great directors. He worked with Zanussi for the first time in 1975 as the cinematographer for The Quarterly Balance, but it was 1984's Year of the Quiet Sun that garnered international attention.

His reputation and acclaim helped him find work outside of Poland during the mid-1990s, including his first English-language film The Journey of August King in 1995. Idziak prefers to work internationally, rather than exclusively for Hollywood, and he has made films in Germany, England, and Ireland. However, it was his cinematography for Ridley Scottís Black Hawk Down in 2000 that proved to be a career highlight, at least in terms of awards and accolades. The dusty burned-out cityscapes and gritty night photography created via filters are reminiscent of his work on The Decalogue, while the smooth hand-held work represents Idziakís more recent claim to fame. Among the awards bestowed on Idziak for Black Hawk Down was a British Academy Award and an Oscar nomination.

Back in Poland

Though less internationally known, several of The Decalogue cinematographers remained in Poland, enjoying success and appreciation in their homeland. Given the lack of funding for theatrical films, many of them have made documentaries and dramas for the television industry.

Edward Klosinski, who lensed "Episode 2: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," graduated from the National Film, Television and Theatre School at Lodz in 1967. Like many Polish film school graduates, he is at home working on theatrical features and on television films. He began lensing for both at about the same time. Though Klosinskiís association with Kieslowski began with The Decalogue, he is notable as the third cinematographer for the Three Colors trilogy, having done the photography for White. In addition to Kieslowski, he has worked extensively with Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Wajda, including on the latterís award-winning Man of Iron.

Andrzej Jaroszewicz, who was the cinematographer for "Episode 8: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor," has worked in France and Germany but does not stray too far from his native Poland. Elected President of the Polish Society of Cinematographers in 1997, Jaroszewicz prefers to collaborate with Polish directors for the benefit of his country. He is one of those cameramen who is truly inventive, having developed a gadget to prevent cameras from getting wet in the rain and a low-cost gyroscope for shooting moving objects from a vehicle.

Other Decalogue cinematographers have gone on to direct films of their own, including Witold Adamek, who lensed "Episode 6: Thou shalt not commit adultery" and Jacek Blawut, who did "Episode 10: Thou shalt not covet thy neighborís wife, nor his manservant, nor his maid, nor his goods, nor anything that is his neighborís." Blawut directed the television documentary The Abnormal, which won the international critics award at the documentary festival in Mannheim. Adamek has enjoyed success in directing comedies, most notably Monday and its sequel Tuesday.