Krzysztof Kieslowski and the semiotic relationship between the characters in his movies


Analysing the semiotic relationship between the abstract character and the protagonist in Kieslowski’s movies. How does this relationship very efficiently lets other assisting characters come in this domain (power structure in narrative realm) and inter-play in the exchange of power and role structure in the narrative. This analysis is divided into sub-sections and then coherently drawn into several supplementing narratives that can assist the previous ones.

This article will deal with the representation of the abstract characters in Kieslowski’s movies in a semiotically framed way. The peculiarity of abstract characters in Kieslowski’s movies are two fold and most often paradoxical. Unlike the others, Kieslowski’s abstract characters enter the frame not just as an unimportant cast with no relevance. They appear to be the angels sent by the gods (mythical) as if to help the protagonist broaden his or her horizons about the situation that he or she is part of or the existential realities and crisis that he or she faces. It is paradoxical because on the one hand the abstract characters often lack any value in the narrative structure. On the other hand, his abstract characters are packed with powerful imagery that has the ability to influence the protagonist (central characters) in myriad ways. Simply put, they are not there to slack. The abstract characters in his movies do not seem to be getting any space in the narrative structure. The moment this abstract looking character is confronted by the main protagonist, the setting of environment turns into an abstract imagery with transcendental element that turns the personal anguish, existence and established status of the central character upside down. In order to establish my argument in his movies, I have, for my convenience, divided each of the movies in phases. The first phase would deal with the pre-encounter phase where the central characters has not met the abstract character. This phase reflects the churning of the crisis phase. In this phase the character is having some sort of obsession with the quotidian. This is a reflection of the sufficiency of silence in his or her life. I consider this phase to be a time space co-ordination that along with the events within is in a developing mode. It acts as a background for the second phase where the protagonist encounters the abstract character. This second phase of encounter between the abstract character and the central character is sort of live action in a theater. It is semiotically framed situation for the characters that appear to be challenging the established status of the central character in the narrative frame with their emergence out of nowhere. This encounter phase sort of didactically places the abstract and the central character as an abstract and articulate one respectively. This is the phase where narrative does not remain to be the main concern of the structure. The third and final phase is the post-encounter phase that I have basically used to show the interiority of the character after his or her encounter with that abstract character. This certainly makes a profound impact upon the subjective interiority of the character which I feel is not adequately shown in the later phase of cinema. It certainly draws a moral conflict in the character. To go through all these arguments, I have used some of the commentaries on the director’s work and persona, articles, essays and other texts to some extent. I mean by the term ‘abstract character’ not just a person but the abstract moral concern of the central protagonist who faces it. It is a sort of the reflection of the interior dilemmas as well. 

Kieslowski once remarked about his characters, ‘I don't want to judge my characters. It's immodest to judge them because we can never see the causes of an event, merely the results. We don't know enough. And sometimes neither do the characters.’ This very observation certainly fits in the domain of analysis about the relationship between the abstract character and the central protagonist in the proposed study. In the film ‘Krótki film o miłości (A Short Film About Love) - 1988 - Krzysztof Kieślowski’ I have tried to establish how the character enters into three phases. Tomek is the central character who spies on a beautiful old woman Magda, who lives in an adjacent apartment. Tomek’s obsession with the Observation of her everyday mundane activities repeatedly brings in the inner crisis in an accumulated form. This inner crisis is prevalent in Tomek’s exterior activities (His continuous efforts to be close to her whether by placing fake postal messages, displacing milk bottles from outside the gate, taking job to fetch milk to her, or even making fake phone calls to intervene in the space which he is unable to enter but registers a psychological presence through all these activities) that define his development in the pre-encounter phase.

Fig. 1 Tomek watching Magda through the binoculor

In ‘An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrarive’ Barthes questions ‘Is everything functional in a narrative? Is everything, down to the most minute detail, meaningful?’ Here he also suggests a way ‘Even though a detail might appear unequivocally trivial, impervious to any function, it would nonetheless end up pointing to its own absurdity or uselessness: everything has a meaning, or nothing has.’ It provides a frame to see Tomek’s obsession with Magda’s everyday activities to be an absurd way that points to the developing phase of Tomek’s character and coming on a standstill that will help him look into the unexplored terrain of life in a more matured way. It informs us two fold functions that is derived from the repeated frame of activities captured in the shots. The two fold functions are; One that through continuous observation of Magda’s activities he is virtually attaining the knowledge about the people (who are fairly much elder to him like Magda, his grandma, or the men with whom Magda makes love) who are not his contemporary in age group and second that he is sort of making himself more aware ironically in an unconscious way where he is directly spying on her everyday activities but does not consciously register the subtle changes in his inner development that is sort of preparing him for the encounter with the abstract character. This pre-encounter phase is filled with a crisis that is continuously making progress as the character is developing. This progress is not only meant to be intact in the power domain of the narrative and always consolidating the assigned status. This progress is in terms of playing with and getting challenged from other characters (specially including the ‘abstract character) in the frame. The moment Tomek encounters the absurd character in white while leaving the apartment- after distributing milk to Magda- he becomes elated because of the approval by Magda to go on a date with him. One thing is quite interesting here to observe is that the character in white seems to be induced by the overwhelmed feeling of Tomek but on the contrary he watches him in an indifferent way as well. Before encountering this man in white, Tomek runs joyfully in a cyclical path with the milk trolley in his hand. This cyclical movement by Tomek signifies the cyclical culmination(He is much older than Tomek and sort of senses the phase, which has been experienced by him and now Tomek is going through) of the mirror image of the man in white. Later on the camera focuses on the back of the moving man in white. Here the functional unit is smaller than the complete sequence of encounter between the abstract and the articulate. This functional unit reaches out beyond the narrative strategy and puts extra layer to the development of characters. The extra layer is the sudden shock that the viewer gets after watching the confrontation between the two and sensing a tension that is created because of Tomek’s gaze watching the moving man in white. It gives the impression that whether Tomek is seeing him as a mirror-image of himself or that White man (who does not have any established role as Tomek in the narrative framework of story except the lasting gaze of Tomek that is followed by the camera uninterruptedly) looks his mirror-image in the joyous Tomek. This unit that I have mentioned before carries within the psychological substance that was accumulated because of Tomek’s crisis in his pre-encounter phase. Later that day after returning from the date Magda says she does not deserve love. While she guides his hands to her thigh Tomek has orgasm and Magda comments ‘Love, that is all it is’. This unnerves him and he rushes out to his apartment. There in the path the man in white once again appear but this time it is Magda’s gaze that is looking at him.

Fig. 2  Magda watching Tomek from her apartment.

The man is in the same white robe with two white and brown colored trolley in both his hands. Taking into account Barthes’ ‘Classes of units’ section from the ‘An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrarive’ where it is discussed that ‘Two main classes of units, functions and indices, account for a certain classification of narratives. Some narratives are predominantely functional (such as popular tales), while some others are predominantly indicial (such as “psychological” novels). The unit of indice in the second phase of Tomek confronting the man in white robe as it was earlier, suggests the functionality of ‘being’ rather than contributing in making it a popular tale with narrative that is predominantly functional. While entering the post-encounter phase, Tomek appears to be a completely new ‘Tomek’. Barthes writes in the essay ‘An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative’ that ‘There is a strong presumption that the mainspring of the narrative activity is to be traced to that very confusion between consecutiveness and consequence, what-comes-after being read in a narrative as what-is-caused-by’. Assimilating this idea with the development of Tomek as a new ‘Tomek’, it seems like ‘what-comes-after’ does have a consequence upon the transformation of Tomek as a new ‘Tomek’. Tomek seems to be disillusioned from his habit of spying upon Magda and taking interest in her everyday mundane activities which cause a ripple effect in him and he also repeats the same activity-like eating bread buttering the bread- in sync with her. We see a sudden shift in the narrative structure with functional units (the activities that included him spying upon Magda ,taking visible interest and curiosity in her everyday mundane activities, caring about every minute detail about her) being displaced with strikingly new domain of activities and almost invisible presence in the narrative frame. This ‘invisible presence’ can be clearly observed in the post-encounter (between the abstract character and the Tomek) section. It is because of the reason that he is not visibly present in any of the frames of the narrative structure. His only visible presence is made in the last shots which has a sort of flash back imagination by Magda. The ‘invisible presence’ reverses the power dynamic in a semiotic way where Tomek being the central character who had been carrying the narrative structure of the film is displaced by Magda. This shift in power dynamics of the role of characters break down the archetype of being the central character in the structure and challenges the authority of the central character. For some time this new dynamics of the narrative framework makes it clear that Tomek may be that abstract character upon whom Tomek had stumbled while going out of the Magda’s apartment with an elated feeling. It gives the impression that Tomek’s character does exhibit double functionality there when in the post-encounter phase his screen space is reduced to a mere ‘invisible presence’ all through the post-encounter phase. It makes me conclude that how different characters (does not matter how much functionality and meaning and value is added or associated with them- it may be the abstract character, Magda, Tomek or his grandma) do have the capacity to tumble down any established or non-established (like the man in white) characters in the story and continuously supplement the need of the structure. It is quite interesting to observe that Magda exchanging her role when she sits at the same spot- where Tomek used to sit and spy upon her- and looks through the binocular at her apartment and imagines the day when she had once again felt bad about the love and spilled milk on the table.

Fig. 3  Tomek seated in Magda's apartment.

This exchange of the person looking through the binocular is not just a mere exchange of person but also of the exchange of the dynamics of the character. This exchange is upon various levels. It is the exchange of crisis, perspectives, Apart from all these things, I am still thinking why is Kieslowski constantly makes male abstract character encounter the male central character and female abstract character encounter the female central character. Is it because of mirror-image of the central characters in their older versions or a reflection of the young energetic characters into their inner self that is consciously aware of that stage (getting old) which will be lived by them.

Another movie that I am using as a text to analyze my proposed idea of observing the relationship between ‘abstract character’ and ‘central character’ is The Double Life of Veronique (French: La double vie de Véronique, Polish: Podwójne życie Weroniki), which was made by the same director in the year 1991. But what is new in terns of my analysis in the movie is that this movie not only focuses upon the two characters mentioned above but also upon the doubling of the central character and their abstract encounter that appears to be making a resemblance with the encounter of ‘central character’ and ‘abstract character’ in the earlier movie. The beginning of the movie shows two separate spaces with two different characters (baby version of Weronika and Veronique) which symbolically represent the doubling of the central characters. It is quite difficult to structurally narrate the frame of doubling of the central characters because of the unsolved way of showing the dilemmas, emotional sensitivity and almost unpredictable nature of the encounters that evolve them as an establishing character. The story-line never seems to suggest a slight hint about what sort of encounter and crisis the characters will undergo. The most strikingly visible and felt character encounters with Weronika and Veronique were the assertive presence of the exact table stone ball and the lady in hat-whom we first see while Weronika gives the audition and win the position. The camera directly refers us to the lady whom Weronika glances. The same lady is also present in the scene where Veronique tries desperately to meet the author Alexandre Fabrri. This mysterious and abstract character (the lady in hat and coat always preserving the same gloomy expression on her face) is present in narrative frame with both the central characters Weronika and Veronique in different time and space co-ordination. The nature of encounter between the ‘abstract character’ ‘central character’ and the doubling of the character is in two ways. Along with this there is a certain unsolved interaction between the double characters of the movie with same object like the table ball with stars on it. What really enhances the frame and dimension of the narrative structure of the movie is the additional focus of camera space upon the object which gives a sense that even these objects can be considered as a character that carries within a completely new way of evolving itself in the narrative frame that is occupies by the living beings. It is a completely new development in the story that I assert in my opinion. The first section of the encounter is between the ‘central character’ and it’s ‘look alike’. When Weronika walks through the main market square and stumbles upon one of the protesters. She gathers all of her music folders and stands up only to see a double of herself in a tourist bus. That double of her is exactly like her in appearance. She smiles at this but the smile is not very pleasing one but of the feeling of being uncertain about her own existence. Till that very time it is Weronika who is driving the narrative plot but all of a sudden the power dynamics seem to be evolving more flexibly and this leads to set free the narrative structure from the control of Weronika. Another important parallel development in the encounter phase is about the doubling of the table stone ball that has some starry pattern. This non living being appears just before the encounter phase between Weronika and Veronique who are to exchange the power dynamics in the narrative frame. Once again referring to the article An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative where in the The problem of the subject section it is proposed that The problems raised by a classification of characters in narrative are still partially unresolved. There is surely a large measure of agreement on the fact that the innumerable characters in narrative can be subjected to rules of substitution and that, even within one work, one single figure can absorb different characters. Going through this frame we can see that the character of Weronika being a single figure is here also trying to absorb within different characters which include Veronique, the table stone ball that she bounces just before the encounter (even though this ball is a non living being but is trying to substitute the need of parallel character development for the narrative strategy) with Veronique. It is quite difficult to classify the character standpoint of Weronika who just was considered the central character of the narrative but all of a sudden seems to be losing that stronghold upon the realm but feeling a sense of enigmatic bond with her double. She at the same time makes us aware of her interior feeling of being connected to the Veronique even though no prior relationship has been set in the frame. Through the semiotic approach we come closer to filling the unspoken leaps and intentional lack of registering visible detail by the director. Another confrontation of Weronika is with the old man in black hat and coat. She is trying to relax herself while sitting on a bench in an alley and suddenly a man appears in the passageway. This abstract character stops for some moment and removes his coat to show his penis that is outside of his paint. The action and the vested intention here is really unclear and I see it as a symbolic representation of the inner conflict and some metaphysical crisis that Weronika contains all through the time.

Fig. 4  Weronika confronting the old man

Along with this it is also shown in some scenes before, like the scene in which she awakes suddenly from a dream in her home and talks to her father. In the article Deleuze and Kieslowski: On the Cinema of Exhaustion Eddy Troy writes that This coupling of certitude and the catastrophes of the first half of the 20th century aligns Kieslowski with Deleuze, whose understanding of truth involves its passage through a crisis that is concomitant with the crisis of the sensory-motor schema. Kieslowski is one of many European thinkers who conduct some variety of what Horkheimer calls the ‘critique of instrumental reason.’ Blind Chance (Przypadek, 1981) marks the start of a substitution of what Deleuze calls ‘organic’ and ‘truthful’ narration for narrative driven by chance and contingency (c.f. The Double Life of Veronique and Red). For Kieslowski, Blind Chance responds to a moment when ‘a true description of Poland’ is no longer possible. 8 Decalogue: One (Dekalog, jeden, 1988) reflects on techno-scientific certainty as a tragic absence of faith. Still, the temptation to reduce Kieslowski’s oeuvre to a unidirectional instantiation of Deleuze’s thought must be avoided. Indeed, the converse relation comes closer to the truth: Kieslowski’s films are philosophically instructive precisely because they lend specificity and contextualization to the otherwise abstract contours of the crisis of action and its correlative affect of exhaustion. Krzysztof Wierzbicki’s documentary on the director reveals the autobiographical character of Kieslowski’s work: ‘I turn the camera on myself in all my films’ (1998). 8. Kieslowski states: ‘At the end of the 1970s, I realized that this cinematic description was limited, that we had reached these limits and that there was no point in describing this world any further’ (Stok, 1993, p. 113). Film-Philosophy 21 (2017) Here we see that how Kieslowski makes the characters evolve through the conditioned socio-political order of the country itself and this socio-political order does not make the characters exhaust. This exhaustion is from the inside of the character and from the encounter with it’s double, mirror-image and even with the non-living beings (table stone ball). Kieslowski does not believe here in the portraying of details that we as spectators crave to know about all that is happening inside of the Weronika and Veronique. Rather what he shows us are the nuances that compose her. Through this line of development a new narrative seems to be evolving that merges Weronika and Veronique as a single person that are carrying the life of one another without consciously becoming aware of one another physically and in any possible way. But what really transcends this frame is the feeling of being in constant communion with one another. One scene as an instance can be used here. Just before leaving for her aunt, Weronika asks her father she is not alone in the world. This adds up to this development which tries to interlink both Weronika and Veronique living a single life but experienced by two physically living beings in two different spaces. Weronika once again encounters with an old woman while she is getting ready to perform Soprano in the music hall. This encounter seems to bring a cyclical end to the crisis of her life because just after that encounter she performs her last activity as a central character and leaves the narrative world of the movie and assigns her role to her double Veronique.

Fig. 5  The mirroring of Weronika and the Paper weight.

It refers us to the Deleuzian crisis and exhaustion through which the characters of the movie always go through and sometimes leave the essence of their character with some other character so as to supplement the need of the narrative world of cinema. The last encounter in the film is between Veronique and the old woman in hat when she is teaching children. The visualization of feeling is semiotically suggesting that Veronique is instinctively well aware that Weronique had also encountered this strange old woman from the similar space (both are inside a defined space that fits into the domain of living or working and watching through the window pane) with almost identical expression that to some extent lets us know the interior complexity as well. We can say that the life of Weronika is carried through and morphed into Veronique. Another of the development in the dimension of encounter phase is that of the appearance of same character and non living being (the table stone ball) in their lives. It is the only visual cue that guides us through several other symbolic inter connectivity between both the character. These symbolic inter connectivity can be the Marionette performance by Alexandre, the appearance of the same ball, encounter with the same character whom neither they nor us will ever be able to consciously assign some values.

Fig. 6  Close-up of the small ball.

 Concluding the paper, I come with some conclusions that the Double life of Veronique opens with two different but distorted images of the world. Through the idea and assistance provided by the competent capacity of semiotics I could understand the intentional gaps and distortions created in the narrative frame of the movie. I felt it quiet strange to see the ending in such a strange way where Veronique, in a moment of melancholy, touching a tree, and examining its bark—again, focusing on the details, and paying close attention. It also lets me conclude that Kieslowski wants the viewer to think of life and death not as a contrasting feature of the crisis that composes the human beings but as a perspective that is malleable and dynamic. Through these dimensions, things (may be a living being or a non living being) really evolve and pass the legacy to the fellow human being even though they are not consciously aware of the changes and impact that they make in each other’s life. Just like Veronique,we are always discovering something that is new and something that is unbelievably unique and something that is completely terrifying at the same time.



 1. Barthes, Roland. “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative.” New Literary History, Vol 6, No. 2, On Narrative and Narratives (Winter, 1975), pp. 237-272. JSTOR, Accessed: 26-07-2018 07:04 UTC

 2. Troy, Eddie. “Deleuze and Kieslowski: On the Cinema of Exhaustion” University of California, pp. 1-23. Accessed: 16-11-2018 11:23 UTC

 3. Kieslowski, Kryzstof. “Krzysztof Kieslowski - in his own words and remembered by others.” Accessed: 17-11-2018 14:45 UTC

 4. Kieslowski, Kryzstof. “A Short Film About Love(Polish:Krótki film o miłości).” Accessed: 17-11-2018 12:56 UTC

 5. Kieslowski, Kryzstof. “The Double Life of Veronique (French: La double vie de Véronique, Polish: Podwójne życie Weroniki).” Accessed: 08:46 UTC


  1. Have you seen his colour triology.....

    1. Yeah I have seen almost everything by him which includes the color trilogy itself....

  2. Just out of curiosity I am asking whether you have seen the trilogy by Visconti....


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