Pre-Neoliberal Poland

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Scar

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1976 film The Scar, which chronicles the construction and operation of a large chemical factory, breaks many of the rules that had governed narrative cinema since the silent era.

Life under socialism: The Scar.

But it also rejects the showy self-reflexivity of rule breakers like Jean-Luc Godard. The Scar communicates a more muted rebellion.

Best known for the stylish films he made after emigrating to France, such as The Double Life of Veronique and his Three Colors trilogy Red, White, and Blue, Kieślowski began his career making documentary films in his native Poland.

The Scar is a work of fiction, yet doesn’t feel that way. The subject matter is too mundane, the inflection points of the narrative too subtle.

Although the title sounds intriguing, suggesting that it might belong to the detective or horror genre, moviegoers of the time eager for escapist fantasy would have been sorely disappointed.

A shockingly high percentage of the run time is devoted to the sort of soul-deadening meetings that anyone who has ever worked in an institutional setting dreads.

Twenty minutes into the picture, Kieślowski shows us a community hearing in which locals express their concerns about the project.

Even in a top-down planned economy like that of Communist Poland, some concessions have to be made to public sentiment. But as is the case in so many hearings like this, whether they are held in totalitarian states or comparatively transparent democracies, the important decisions have already been made.

We know this because the preceding sequence has shown us that work on the plant is already well underway. The forest that locals want to preserve is already disappearing.

Even were they somehow able to halt the project, the damage its construction has already necessitated would still be there. No matter how much these people vent, they won’t get anywhere.

Scenes like this make The Scar frustrating to watch, a story of development that fails to deliver the satisfactions we expect from storytelling.

Aside from Bednarz’s rebellious daughter Eva, who bears a child out of wedlock, none of the characters achieve a new beginning. And the massive transformation of the landscape necessary to build the plant is delineated in negative terms, as the title makes clear.

Kieślowski, who tended to be a stern critic of his own work, had harsh things to say about The Scar in later years. In particular, he suggested that he was led astray by impulses that had served him well when he was making documentaries.

In the book Kieślowski on Kieślowski, the director explains that The Scar was “based on a report. . . a collection of facts, written by a journalist”. Unfortunately, the story he could have told with this information in a documentary was incompatible with his sense of what a work of fiction should be.

“I deviated from this report a great deal because I had to invent the action, a plot, characters, and I did it badly,” he concludes.

Three decades later this failure feels more like a success.

Considering the reality television genre that exploded in the years following Kieślowski’s death in 1996, the advent of social media, and the boom in documentary filmmaking that accompanied them, it is easier for us to perceive the contradiction at the heart of The Scar in a positive light.

In a world where millions and millions of people are trying, day after day, to transmute the mundane reality of their existence into something that has the shape and impact of fiction, Kieślowski’s ambivalence about inventing the elements of a good story seems like an ethical stance, a proleptic commentary on trends he would not live long enough to see.

What makes The Scar resonate today, despite the tedium Kieślowski inflicts upon us, is the clarity with which it distinguishes between quantitative and qualitative progress. Although there are more jobs at the end of the story and Poland’s productive capacity has increased, the quality of life has decreased for pretty much everyone.

Right before that hearing scene, the television reporter who was interviewing Bednarz about the project remarks to his cameraman that the area was previously “underdeveloped”. Unfortunately, it is transitioning straight to overdevelopment.

Development is a process, not a product. The logic governing it makes no room for an equilibrium in which a place has been sufficiently developed.

Given The Scar’s pessimism, it’s surprising that the picture was well received when it debuted in 1976, winning both the Special Jury Prize and Best Actor for Franciszek Pieczka at that year’s Polish Film Festival.

Perhaps that is because the film encourages us to identify with Pieczka’s Stefan Bednarz, a dedicated public servant beset on all sides by complaints and corruption. Or maybe it’s because people with the authority to decide the film’s fate recognised the need for self-critique.

It didn’t hurt that Kieślowski steered clear of the provocations, in both form and content, of Eastern European New Wave directors like Věra Chytilová and Dušan Makavejev. The only thing about The Scar likely to alienate viewers is its refusal to speed past the tedium of meetings.

Nevertheless, their presence in The Scar is crucial. Although Kieślowski wants us to identify with Bednarz more than other characters in the film, that bond must remain partial. When we see him in that context, his otherwise restrained manner gives way to impatience.

Pieczka’s acting makes it clear that this man is ambivalent about both the chemical factory and the local community, from which he and his wife fled decades before. His refusal to commit fully reveals an imperious streak. We get the sense that he regards himself as a philosopher king, able to resolve almost any problem if only everybody would let him be.

While any intelligent person who has had to tangle with a large bureaucracy can understand feeling this way from time to time, Bednarz doesn’t seem to understand that his job would be a lot easier if he really listened to the different stakeholders in the project, instead of only pretending to do so. The same goes for the local bureaucrats who are deaf to the hearings they hold.

The only way to stop the momentum of this dysfunctional system was for the state to collapse. Yet soon enough, the developers of Poland’s planned economy were replaced by their Western equivalent, who didn’t even have to pretend that they were working on behalf of the people.

Even though Kieślowski largely avoids the stand-out moments that would characterize his later work, there are a few that break through the tedium.

A large festival is held to celebrate the opening of the plant, with Bednarz as the guest of honour. Although most people are having a good time, we are reminded that all is not well, such as when a drunken local man is expelled from the event by security because he is loudly asking for a job.

A minute later, we cut to a shot of a green hillside with two large crosses on which many small fires are burning. The sound of the band at the festival is replaced by an eerie keening sound. It seems like it might be coming from outside the narrative. When we cut to a close-up of Bednarz’s face in the fading twilight, however, the sound keeps going.

“You even lit up the hillside for effect,” his Eva tells him. Although he brushes this notion aside, she needles him about having just been celebrated as “the great Bednarz”.

When he replies that he is simply doing his job, she disagrees, “This isn’t your job. You’re a builder. So why can’t you handle simple human problems?”

These words are a stinging indictment of the technocrat’s mentality. But they have a deeper philosophical meaning as well.

We perceive a fundamental incompatibility between the development of places and the development of people. Prioritizing the former is bound to have negative consequences for the latter.

For a man like Bednarz, the only way to prevent this damage is to stop doing his job, a goal he eventually achieves by being removed from his post since both the local party bureaucrats and members of the community sour on his leadership.

From this perspective, the fact that The Scar struggles to tell a compelling story seems self-reflexive, a way to acknowledge that, in a world where development is pursued for its own sake, the inflection points we expect in a human-sized narrative are bound to disappear.

Looking out at the burning hillside, Bednarz tells Eva, “That’s the cemetery.” Even though we can’t read his thoughts, we can tell that he is trying to make sense of the spectacle.

The film’s final scene, after he has said goodbye to his co-workers, shows him with a baby, presumably the one that Eva has had out of wedlock. Bednarz is encouraging the child to take its first steps.

It’s a developmental milestone that has nothing to do with the job that preoccupied him for the rest of the picture.

Without preaching, Kieślowski reminds us that there are better ways of measuring progress than the yardsticks of a planned economy.

Screenshot courtesy of The Criterion Collection. Published under a Creative Commons license.