Krzystof Kieslowski directed one of the more interesting self-reflexive films in 1979, when he filmed Camera Buff (Amator, literally Amateur), his second feature film, which runs an hour and fifty-two minutes. It is the one which made him a known commodity in the film world.
While not a great film, it is a bit more successful a film than other fare from that era, such as his own Blind Chance, from 1981. This film was a co-winner of the Grand Prize at the 1979 Moscow Film Festival, although that dubious festival’s selections have long been known to be laughably bad, at their worst. As with many films made in countries with repressive governments, Camera Buff can get a bit didactic at times, but when it’s not preaching it’s a pretty good look at the art of filmmaking and the responsibility of an artist to himself and his art.
The tale is not a particularly fresh one, as it follows the life of a none too bright factory worker named Filip Mosz (Jerzy Stuhr, who later appears in White), a typically mousy Polish man who loves to drink, who is contented with his life as a husband and father of a newborn baby girl, Irenka.
However, when he decides to buy an 8 mm Russian camera, that costs two months of his salary, to record his daughter’s childhood, his life quickly unravels. His wife Irka (Malgorzata Zabkowska) does not support his hobby, and selfishly wishes him ill. Eventually, she will leave him and take their child, even as she is pregnant with a second child. Hers is a character that is typical of the non-artistic mindset.
So are the managers at the local factory he works for as a nationwide buyer, who decide to underwrite his ‘hobby’ so he can film company propaganda about their twenty-fifth anniversary. That and his subsequent films are rather dull treatises on banal aspects of life in a state run system, but somehow they get nominated for film awards at a local festival the company submits them to. In truth, they are particularly unartful films, which only highlights the absurdity of their political potential in a system where total faith is required.
Kieslowski has a good deal of fun with both the pomposity of such film festival sponsors, mere apparatchiks who clearly have no idea of what real art is, as well as poking fun at the bad artist types themselves, represented by a fiery character called The Lunatic, who hisses and rages at all such films. Filip’s film wins third prize at the festival, really second prize, since all of the films are judged not good enough for a first prize. This is manifest to the viewer, but even the declarer of such dour judgments is shown satirically as a boob, and orates far too pompously about art.
Of course, Filip’s films attract the interest of a woman named Anna Wlodarczyk (Ewa Pokas), who is a national film board honcho who has slept her way to the top and soon becomes Filip’s lover, as well as real-life Polish filmmaker Krzystof Zanussi, who gets Filip’s films on local Polish television news, after meeting and arguing about film aesthetics with him in Lodz.
Especially successful is a film Filip does on the life of a dwarf at the company. That this man is contented with his dull and deprived life says much of the dehumanizing conditions of Communism, but it also exposes Filip to the increasing censorship of the director of his company. The premise of this trope is that the camera can never be neutral, and all art is political. Of course, this is a fallacy, but one employed as the engine that sets this film in motion, despite its logical weakness and triteness.
The film does a good job, however, at exploring the social strata of a Communist nation that, nonetheless, has classes of people who can do what they want and those who are tightly strictured. There is a terrific sequence, near the film’s end, when the company director (Stefan Czyzewski) takes Filip out for a ride in the country, and explains to him that he has to fire Filip’s champion at the company, Osuch (Jerzy Nowak), who nonetheless still supports Filip’s ventures. This is because the film on the dwarf, called "The Worker," has shots in it that showed to the government that the company, funded by the state, squandered money allotted for certain wasteful purposes to celebrate the socialist system on other things. These were things that had far more useful purposes — such as building a child care center at the plant.
Throughout the film, the director seems to be a reluctant sponsor of Filip, and someone who is merely yet another censor, even if Filip’s first. But this scene reveals that the man loathes the system as much as Filip, and has subverted it in a far more low key but effective fashion. The difference is that he knows just how far he can manipulate it for the company’s, and worker’s, own ends, and that his attempts at censorship were merely attempts to preserve the good things he had been able to do for the company.
Filip’s film, which he believed served a social good in exposing the dwarf’s life, also served a social ill, to ruin the career of his best sponsor, as well as kybosh the good things the director was doing for his employees. In response, Filip recovers another film en route to the TV station and destroys it, much to the dismay of one of his co-workers, who belongs to the company film club Filip founded. As in the comic book and filmic realm of Spider-Man, Filip learns that "with great power comes great responsibility."
The film ends with a chastened Filip alone in his apartment, a year after the birth of his daughter, and left to film nothing but himself. He turns the camera on himself and narrates the scenes of his child’s birth that started the film, yet another layer within a layer in this highly textured work.
As a pure work of art the film gets better as it progresses. Early shots seem handheld, amateurish, quotidian, and almost cinema verité, while later scenes reflect a more polished technique, and seem more political, thereby recapitulating Filip’s progress as a filmmaker subliminally. Also, aside from the visual progression, the film starts off as a mildly comic farce — Filip hiccups when upset, and ends in being an existential drama, with a dour Filip looking blankly into the black lens.
It’s not a greatly funny film at the beginning nor a gloomily dark one at the end, but it is a film that has the stamp of "reality" all over its artifice, even if its political critique is its weakest element. Also wan are the moments of forced emotion, such as when a friend and neighbor of Filip’s, named Piotr Krawczyk (Marek Litewka), whose mother dies, and who is so distraught he cannot go to the funeral, asks to see a film snippet that Filip took of him and his mom. His depth consists of this banality: "What you’re doing is beautiful. Somebody is dead but still here." Another banality the film offers is this: "The life of nature can withstand the light of day," implying that man-made things are less truthful.
This sort of tripe is the fault of the screenplay, written by Kieslowski alone, with some help from Stuhr, before he was to partner with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who helped him with The Decalogue and Three Colors Trilogy. Also, the camera work by Jacek Petrycki, so key in his later films, is rather dull, muted, and flat, despite the switch from documentary to feature film style. But, most of all, this film is missing the glorious soundtracks and musical scoring of Zbigniew Preisner, which made the later Kieslowski films so memorable. This film’s music, by Krzysztof Knittel, is so underwhelming I cannot honestly recall a single theme nor motif from the film.
The DVD of the film, part of Kino Video’s The Films Of Krzystof Kieslowski boxed set, has some interesting features, although no film commentary. There is a thirteen-minute introduction by Kieslowski hagiographer Annette Insdorf, who did the wretched film commentaries for the Three Colors Trilogy. There is a seventeen-minute interview with Zanussi and a five-minute one with another Polish filmmaker, Agnieska Holland, as well as a filmography and trailer for the film.
The best feature on the disk, however, is an interesting 1980 documentary by Kieslowski, called Talking Heads. It runs about fifteen minutes, and is a series of very brief interviews with Poles who were born in different years. It starts with a one-year-old, born in 1979, and ends with a hundred-year-old born in 1880, as the years of birth get older and older. At first one feels that the film is taking snippets from the years, but after twenty or so years go by on the screen, it becomes obvious all the interviews are from 1980, and it’s the birth years that are shown, not the year of filming, for fashions stay the same, and soon the film goes into the silent film era, and pre-film era.
Camera Buff is a film that gives hints at the greatness Kieslowski had within, but it was still a few years away, and, even though it’s a better film than Blind Chance, it’s one that is probably best viewed after the later masterpieces, for then even its failures can have some resonances as trial runs for things other films would succeed far better at. Would that more people learned so well from their youthful endeavors.