For all the lush cinematicity of the Three Colours trilogy, there are few auteurs as indebted to television as Krzysztof Kieślowski. In fact, taken as a whole, his career largely unfolded as a television director, from shorts and documentaries in the 1970s, to fully-fledged telemovies in the 1980s, to the auteurist telemovie sequence of The Decalogue, and from there to a pair of films – A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love – that were themselves expanded versions of two of the episodes of The Decalogue. It was only at that point that Kieślowski made the transition to actual cinematic releases, but even the Three Colours trilogy had something of the serial flavour of his early telemovie releases – not least because each of the individual films was relatively short – while his projected Heaven, Hell and Hope trilogy promised to follow something of a similar format. Only The Double Life of Veronique feels like a stand-alone, exclusively cinematic artefact, which is perhaps why, at a mere 98 minutes, it is also the longest of Kieślowski’s films as well, although even Veronique’s dyadic structure can feel like two separate episodes that have been serially stitched together in the manner of The Decalogue.
At the same time, that’s not to say that Kieślowski’s later films are necessarily televisual in any conventional or immediately recognisable sense, nor that his earlier telemovies are simply short cinema in filigree either. Instead, his convergence of telecinema and cinema produced a brevity, efficiency and economy of cinematic language that increasingly seemed capable of converging cinema itself with other media – most pervasively music – creating tone poems of extraordinary, mercurial beauty, as well as a body of work that can be remarkably difficult to process or analyse in cinematic terms alone. In some ways, that tendency is clearest in his mid-career telemovies, which form a bridge between the exigencies of his earlier shorts and the auteurism of his later, more self-consciously cinematic releases. In these works, there’s a gradual expansion and evolution of Kieślowski’s sense of mise-en-scene paired with a gradual refinement and compression of his mise-en-scenes themselves, imbuing his camera in turn with the kind of intensified documentary presence of an auteur anxious to bear witness to history.
One of the most spectacular of these mid-career telemovies is Short Working Day, a dramatisation of the June 1976 Protests, during which workers across Poland gathered to demonstrate against the increase in food prices dictated by Prime Minister Piotr Jaroszewicz in order to help boost the ailing Polish economy. Although protests and strikes were expected in the major cities, authorities weren’t prepared for the crowds that descended upon some of the smaller urban centres, especially the satellite city of Radom, where a demonstration started at the Metal Works and headed for the Radom Vovoideship Building of the Polish United Workers’ Party, picking up some 20 000 workers from other factories along the way. What ensued was something of a siege situation, in which the workers surrounded and eventually stormed the Vovoideship, although it was only a matter of time before the police brutally suppressed the protest – so brutally, in fact, that this effectively forged the first real alliance between the workers and intelligentsia in Communist Poland, with the Committee for the Defense of the Workers emerging to provide legal aid and counsel to those protestors detained or prosecuted by the police. While that process was somewhat fractious, the protests did ultimately result in lowered food prices, while the Committee provided a platform for Lech Walesa to start to build the public profile that would ultimately culminate in the reforms of the late 1980s and 1990s.
In some ways, the genius of Short Working Day is that it manages to pay tribute to that historical density while also crafting it into an experience that is available within the limited scope – only eighty minutes – of a telemovie. In fact, in its ingenuity and economy, it manages to transform the telemovie into a medium for registering and articulating demonstration almost as effectively as Eisenstein managed with film, the key difference from Eisenstein’s vision being there there is now, in Communist Poland, an entire bureaucratic apparatus in place to deal with strikers and to contain and neutralise their demands. For that reason, most of the action is set within the Radom Vovoideship Building and, more specifically, within the office of the First Secretary, played by Wenceslaus Ulewicz, in a loosely fictionalised version of Janusz Prokopiak, who was the Secretary at the time. While the demonstration unfolds more or less in real time, we only ever experience it indirectly, from within the confines of this office, and from the perspective of the bureaucrats who are trying to contain it, with the majority of the film devoted to the Secretary and his interior monologues, which revolve around when and how the Party will support him when the protestors arrive, and whether it might ultimately be better to join them than to remain in the office and suffer the consequences of the protest without Party support.
In that sense, the film plays as a chamber drama in which the chamber itself is gradually threatened and ruptured, from the earliest rumours and reports of the strike – largely delivered by phone – to the gradual and quite sublime emergence of the strike on the fringes of perception, audible long before it is visible, and even when it is visible taking some time to fill out the austere, deserted, scopic streetscapes framed by the office windows. Even when the demonstrators have arrived and settled in for good – chanting slogans, burning cards, delivering demands through their various spokespeople – they are nearly always shot in extreme wide-shots, and nearly always from the perspective of the office windows, with a panoramic sweep that effectively contains the cinematic spectacle this could have been in favour of the more classically televisual co-ordinates of the office itself, and the various micro-procedures that the Secretary employs to both deflect and divert himself from the coming conflagration. As a film that is effectively composed of a single professional actor and a mass of non-professional extras, most of whose faces remain fairly indistinguishable throughout its duration, there’s something quite visceral and immediate about the way in which Kieślowski taps into the oscillation between individual and collective, as well as the continuity between industrial and administrative space, so essential to the Communist bureacracy he is exploring and elaborating.
All of which makes it remarkably difficult to determine the extent to which Short Working Day is a critique, a celebration, or some combination of both. On the face of it, the script is very much on the side of the workers, concluding with a beatific fragment of footage of Walesa as their saviour and periodically flashing-forward in time to depict their treatment at the hands of the Party, as well as their – occasional – restoration at the hands of the Committee. At the same time, though, there’s something about the way in which Kieślowski elides the conclusion to the strike that offsets the sense of victory as well, or at least distends it into something for which the present is still accountable, with the film concluding with the Secretary’s explanation of his actions to a selection of Party members in the present day. While the workers are favoured over the Party, then, there is an allegiance to the Party’s capacity to learn from their treatment of the worker as well, creating a quite Communist sense of characterisation in which neither the workers nor the Party are exactly at fault so much as bound up in a dialectic, synergistic reconfiguration of their relationship with one another that extends into and challenges the present. Of course, it would be impossible not to discern a certain critique of bureaucracy in Kieślowski’s drab, monotonous, dehumanising interiors, which in their mystifying of every procedure anticipate the mystical realism of his later films in quite a surprising way. Yet the antagonism is ultimately characterised in a more productive, less decisive way than is common in Western cinema, with the Secretary’s final address to the Party taking place via a television screen that was presumably not that different from the intended audience’s own, giving the film the urgency of a live broadcast rather than the comforting historicity of a chamber period piece.
One of the great ironies of the film, then, was that it wasn’t actually broadcast on Polish television until 1996, due to concerns about precisely this inability to relegate the events that it depicts to a comfortably remote past. Instead, it had a variety of one-off cinematic releases, as well as being permitted at cine-clubs, and while there is inevitably something thrilling about seeing Kieślowski on the big screen, there was undoubtedly something lost in the transition to the cinema as well. If the script hinges on the final televisual broadcast, then there is something about seeing that televisual broadcast on television that is critical to the experience as well. By the time it was finally broadcast in the mid-90s the Secretary’s broadcast – presented as contemporary with the telemovie itself – would have lost a great deal of its immediacy. In “A Contribution to the Erotologie of Television,” Andre Bazin observed that one of the key features of television – and one of the key ways in which it could endear audiences to the paucity of its mise-en-scenes and visual apparatus – was its claim to being a live medium, even or especially if the sense of liveness was often as carefully contrived as the sense of realism was in cinema: “Live broadcast must come first on the list of what is particular to television. Indisuputably, our awareness of the simultaneity of an object’s existence with our perception of it constitutes the pleasure principle specific to television and the only thing it offers that cinema cannot.” While Bazin is clearly talking about an earlier moment in the history of television than the 1980s, and a considerably more primitive televisual mise-en-scene than that available to Kieślowski, there is nevertheless a sense in which Short Working Day consciously reverts to this older kind of teleplay in order to distill television to those live credentials, offering a breathless fictionalised political procedural that culminates and converges with what finally feels like a live broadcast.
At the same time, live television has a peculiar capacity to evoke a novel sense of collectivity in the way it engenders awareness of other viewers who cannot but seen but who can be felt to exist, simultaneously, in the very address of the televisual image itself – an awareness that would certainly have contributed further to Short Working Day, which increasingly revolves around speculations by the Secretary and his staff as to the extent to which the demonstrations building outside their window are simultaneous with or representative of other demonstrations occurring throughout the rest of Poland at this exact moment. As what starts out as a fairly realistic diegetic backdrop – the roar of the crowd – turns into a kind of subaudible murmur from the most distant reaches of the protest, so the film seems designed gather its audience into a collective yet nonsensuous – or at least nonvisible – awareness of the simultaneous presence of millions of other witnesses to this momentous juncture in Polish history, an effect that must have been somewhat lost amidst the singularity of isolated cinematic screens, even if their provisionality and spontaneity – what Bazin once described as “mixed cinema” in his account of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires – produced a new kind of collective experience in the process.
What ensues, then, is a telefilm that was never shown on television and in some sense can never be shown on television – the 1996 broadcast was really just another cinematic screening in disguise – insofar as the impression of liveness depended on it being screened at the time it was made. And yet the film also feels, at moments, precisely like a telefilm that is designed to elude television as well, a telefilm that is sceptical of television, insofar as the sense of a missed collective opportunity is precisely its subject, haunting the Secretary and tending to displace him from the very present he is trying to assuage. Suffused with a paradoxical and somewhat incoherent temporality – the longest day of the year turns out to be the shortest working day of the year – that finally feels intrinsic to telecinema itself – which has to be televisual enough to seem live, but timeless enough to feel cinematic – it’s a clear forerunner of the collective slippages between present and past, live and performed life, of Kieślowski’s subsequent cinematic works, and one of the most mercurial and minimal works in his enigmatic career.