[Review by Antony Stubbs]
[Writer: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz | Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski | Aired: 06/15/1990]
“Desperation is the raw material of drastic change.” – William Burroughs
I’ve often wondered why the Bible makes a sine qua non of loving one’s parents, whilst love for one’s children seems less of a necessity. Indeed, is Isaac anything more than a pawn when God tests Abraham to see if his devotion is such that he would murder him upon divine request? Of course, the reinforcement of expressing love for one’s seniors then naturally extends to loving and respecting one’s religious leaders also: we don’t call the priest “Father” for nothing.
But if this is a one-way street, isn’t it understandable that a child deprived of any reciprocal tenderness would grow to resent their parent(s)? Now, consider that situation applying to someone who is overlooked in favour of her own daughter. Now imagine that said person’s parents pretend to be their grandchild’s true parents, thereby writing not only her achievement but her generation out entirely, and you begin to see why young student Majka is determined to right the wrong that has been hanging over her head for so many years.
“VII” begins with a child’s cries in the night, an effective and economic method of setting up the key theme of the episode: the suffering of children. We cut to a scene in which Majka turns her student books in (thereby closing the door on her education), and, as we shall soon find, her current life as she knows it. She smiles as she exclaims, “expelled is expelled”, which suggests she is happy that this part of her decision-making process has been made for her. Fate, perhaps?
We return to the crying as it overlays a scene in which Majka’s father Stefan does battle with a pipe organ in his workshop. He is clearly unconcerned by the sound; it is possible that it has become so commonplace as to be the normal order of things. In case, his efforts to busy himself function as a distraction from his real environment, an unhappy household.
Majka’s next step is to try and arrange a flight to Canada for her and her daughter/sister Ania, who has no passport given the familial machinations on Majka’s mother’s part, Ewa, to ensure that Ania never discovers her real parentage. Appropriately enough, Majka’s return to her flat at the all-too-familiar Warsaw block is met with the striking image of Ania’s hand reaching out: she is grasping for the maternal, like so many Dekalog characters, and instead grabs the net surrounding of her cot, with all of its resemblance to a cage.
Ania, she of the piercing blue eyes, has been dreaming of wolves, and not for the first time. Ewa asserts not only her position as mother by shoving Majka aside, but that of the alpha female. With three females convening on this one scenario, where do we find daddy? In the workshop again, at a physical and emotional remove. Majka joins him temporarily, as the pipe organ, narrow interiors and shallow focus box the characters in further.
With these key elements in place, the stage is set for Majka’s next move: the abduction of Ania and her revelation as her true, biological mother.
At a school hall, Majka springs her trap with an appropriately childish game: rolling a ball down a flight of stairs to distract the woman acting sentinel, thereby facilitating her ‘kind kidnapping’ from a side exit. Ewa reacts with greater urgency and panic than Krzysztof in “I” [1×01] as she registers Ania’s disappearance.
With this act of transgression (“Thou shalt not steal”), Majka is surrendering everything about her life to the vicissitudes of fate: everything hinges on the next twenty-four hours. The outcome can go either one of two ways: either Majka successfully escapes with her daughter and they renew their familial dynamic abroad (you can decide for yourself whether this process of revelation and reconstruction would be smoother or more traumatic than that of “IV” [1×04]), or Majka fails, and potentially dismantles her role as sister permanently.
Already, this begs a number of questions to the audience: can children be expected to cope well with major changes? Was Ewa ever going to tell Ania the truth, and if she did, when would be a ‘good’ time? Is there such a thing as a white lie? Is Majka a sufficiently capable mother? This last query is a vital one, as we remember that Kieslowski rarely decides which side the audience should be on. Whilst Majka is trying to better her lot and embark upon a mission of honesty with Ania, is she truly capable of ensuring her daughter’s future? This is key towards presenting Kieslowski’s argument. Though we may have already arrived at our ethical position on truth, the prospect of whether or not Ania’s life will be improved by Plan B is very debatable. For all of Majka’s plainness and lack of ambition, Ewa radiates confidence and determination, and loves Ania dearly.
This sense of perpetual overshadowing is reinforced by the revelation that Ewa was headmistress at a school who hired Ania’s eventual father as a teacher, Wojtek. This solidifies Ewa’s position as literal woman-in-charge at the time of Wojtek’s seduction of Majka, and presumably engineered the ostensible family system without question. Ewa gains a daughter she can actually love, Majka can continue her studies, Wojtek can be spared charges of statutory rape. On paper, this fabrication seems to paper a number of cracks. But the heart wants what it wants.
After treating Ania to a ride on an abandoned carousel, the pair retreat to a remote cabin owned by Wojtek in his new capacity as teddy bear maker. Majka clarifies her new MO, expressing her desire for him to join them and form a new, biologically true (if emotionally uncertain) family unit. Wojtek is sceptical, not because of indifference to Majka but of concern for their daughter. He understands why Ewa went to to the lengths she did, whilst simultaneously trying to sympathise with Majka. Like the rest of us, he wants to know what’s in Ania’s best interests.
The house filled with bears (coupled with Ania’s red hooded coat) gives the location a uniquely fairy-tale element redolent of the costumes and props of the school play Ania attended. Though Majka has confided the truth to her, Ania still can’t be expected to fully comprehend the situation (consider her smile earlier when she asks “Have you kidnapped me? Like in the story-books?”), so retreating to a stranger’s house in the middle of nowhere filled with toys can only seem like part of some elaborate game of hide-and-seek.
Kieslowski has proved more than adept at presenting a mystery in genre-free terms by addressing the emotional and ethical concerns of family units, and until this point “VII” has been powered by this particular brand of fuel. Unfortunately, not long after arriving at the rendezvous point, the episode curiously deflates. It is here that exposition takes over almost entirely, as all of the backstory details are filled in verbally: the passport, Wojtek’s silence, complications that prevented Ewa from having any more children, etc. While it’s important that Wojtek knows all the facts (and in doing so, Majka’s attitude of “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” illustrates a marked contrast to Ewa’s tissue of lies), there’s surely a better way of conveying that information to the audience also. Because of this, the script tends to feel far more Piesiewicz than Kieslowski.
Now, this particular obstacle would typically be mitigated by such a marvellous director, yet “VII” feels curiously flat in the imagery stakes. Save for a few notable close-ups, such as Ania’s hand clutching the netting and the carefully-measured focus on her face at the close of the episode, there isn’t a great deal to suggest that this is the work of one of Europe’s most revered film directors. Indeed, the idiosyncratically deliberate pacing notwithstanding, it doesn’t actually appear terribly different to ‘normal’ television drama, and as a result makes me glad it didn’t feature earlier in the series where its essential plainness might have proved a deterrent.
Having said that, the cabin scene is notable for a couple of touches, such as when Majka tells Wojtek about how Ewa used to breastfeed Ania as a baby. High levels of oxytocin in a mother’s body create familiarity between her and a newborn. This imprinting produces feelings of calmness and comfort in both parties, and a sense of fundamental biological recognition. It’s quite a beautiful thing. But to couple this normal, natural attachment to the idea that a grandmother might supplant the real mother by forging an ersatz dependency is pretty perverse, even if you side with Ewa. As if by subconscious identification, Ania grabs Wojtek’s finger at Majka’s words: “sucking at her breast”. The other noteworthy detail follows Stefan’s call to Wojtek in which the former teacher denies any complicity. Though the parents’ dialogue together finds admittance of disinterest in their real daughter (“She knew she had to earn your love”), they at least know her well enough to understand what makes her tick, and what methods she would take to fashion a new family unit.
The exposition continues as Majka initiates what she expects to be her final correspondence with her parents, making her ultimatum clear. The phone exchange is crucial for a particularly telling line, as kidnapper Majka claims “you’ve stolen my child”. Well, from Majka’s perspective, her childhood and indeed entire life have been stolen from her by Ewa’s cover story. For every ounce of love Ewa bestowed on Ania, the same was denied to Majka. As far as the true mother is concerned, she now has everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Indeed, as Wojtek discovers when he returns to an empty cabin after a delivery, even he doesn’t factor into Majka’s plans anymore; his scepticism over her sense of practicality has rendered him persona non grata. He calls Ewa and Stefan, admitting his hand in the scheme.
At the river near the train station, our fugitives find themselves at the precipice of a new world. Ania throws a twig into the rushing water and the camera charts its disappearance. As much as to convince herself as anyone else, Majka asks Ania for a kiss, a physical gesture to ‘confirm’ Ania’s acceptance of her new mother, despite Ania’s earlier disinclination to call her anything other than “Majka”.
They try to board any train available, but as it’s a Sunday they are delayed by a two-hour wait: has the Sabbath itself attempted to intervene in these clandestine affairs? The sympathetic ticketer offers them shelter in the booth, perhaps believing Majka is fleeing from domestic violence (in a way, she’s right, it’s just strictly of the emotional variety).
At the eleventh hour, upon the eve of escape, Majka’s plan is thwarted as Ewa and Stefan arrive at the booth, to which Ania wakes at the familiar voice of her ‘parent’. Woken by the confirmation of Ania calling Ewa “mother” once more, followed by the ever-painful sight of her daughter back in the arms of the woman who denied her such affection, Majka hurriedly boards the departing train. Though she no doubt leaves forever, perhaps a modicum of comfort can be taken in Ania’s futile chase: for one day at least, she could truly call her daughter her own.
In a way, “VII” strikes me as a counterpoint to Kieslowski’s own argument in “IV” [1×04]. In both of these episodes, the protagonist battles with a parental figure over verisimilitude. In the earlier episode, Anka and Michal’s confrontation and revelations forged a new, more candid bond between them that would allow both parties to move on with restructured and emotionally-available lives. By contrast, “VII” shows how forcible acts of change can actually prove destructive, and that white lies might be more comfortable than the alternative. Of course, this case doesn’t just affect their lives, but that of an innocent party.
It’s fascinating that Kieslowski is so open to self-criticism in this way. Unfortunately, the qualitative gap between these two episodes is wide enough to almost axiomatically suggest a stronger argument for the former, as the deficiencies in “VII”‘s script and cinematography strip it of the sort of impact the audience expects of the rest of the series.
Note: I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention Artur Barcis’ abscence in this episode. I have gathered from a few sources that there were certain obstacles that prevented his inclusion, as opposed to his deliberate abscence from “X” [1×10]. I agree with the general consensus that he is supposed to be represented by the man on crutches leaving the train at Józefów, as the purposefulness of Kieslowki’s imagery suggests to me that a figure wouldn’t appear in the absolute dead centre of the frame otherwise, especially at a key moment. If it is him, however, then his appearance in the episode is far too late to function as ‘the observer’, which makes me wonder where he intervened in the script: probably as a stagehand during the school play. I’d quite like to get hold of the Kubrick-approved screenplays for clarification on that one.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The innocent-malevolent score which reminds me of the work of Krzysztof Komeda.
+ The slightly sinister shot of the playground before it cuts to establish Majka as the voyeur.
+ The excellent panning shot of Ewa leaving the building, easily the best camerawork in a relatively visually-undynamic episode. Ewa’s near-trip looks genuine, and adds to her sense of panic.
+ Ania finger-writing on the train window.
+ Two words on the typewriter’s paper at Wojtek’s. Talk about writer’s block.
+ Wojtek hurrying to turn off the alarm clock whilst Ania’s sleeping. He truly cares about her well-being, which just makes the situation harder.
+ Ania asking if Wojtek is a sorcerer. The whole thing’s a game to her.
+ Wojtek finding the bear by the river, the discarded childhood.
– The scene in which Stefan talks to Gregor about the kidnapping. Sheer exposition, sheer padding.