This essay appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


After a quarter century, Western elites are emerging from the victory-induced slumber into which they fell along with the Berlin Wall. Only the recent resurgence of populism has persuaded people that globalization isn’t the end of history—that a free international market powered by technological innovation, along with open borders and the spread of liberal institutions, has not put an end to the messy business of politics. Our pressing task now is to clarify precisely how so many could be so blind for an entire generation.

Since intellectuals have not adequately foreseen or dealt with our crisis, I suggest we turn to poets for insight. In the early ’90s, Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, just before dying, earned international recognition as a great dramatist of our modern predicament. Nominations in all the major European festivals—Cannes, Venice, Berlin, BAFTA—and then at the Oscars signaled that a master of cinema had been revealed in his Three Colors, an examination of post-1989 Europe. He symbolized the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment by the colors of the French flag and dramatized their weaknesses through the lives of his characters. By 2002, the prestigious British publication Sight & Sound had put him at number two in critics’ estimation of modern directors. Whether or not his insights were understood, they were everywhere recognized for their depth and the beauty with which Kieślowski presented them. Everyone knew something memorable had been said. It’s time we learned exactly what he wanted to show us, since much of it has come true.

* * *

Blue begins with Julie losing her husband and daughter in a car accident she survives. Her husband, Patrice, the greatest living composer—despite rumors that Julie actually does his work—was writing the Concert for the Unification of Europe, celebrating the beginning of the European Union, before his unexpected death. Patrice and his daughter are honored with a public funeral, Julie watching from a hospital bed on a portable television. After recovering, she tries to sell her family home. Moving to a new place might free her from her memories.

Olivier, a colleague of Patrice who loves Julie, finds her in a café near her new apartment, but she wants to leave him behind, too. She accidentally befriends the libertine stripper Lucille from the floor below by refusing to sign a petition to evict her. Freedom includes tolerance for Lucille in the face of unanimous condemnation of her behavior. One evening Julie is comforting Lucille at her sex club after Lucille was shocked to see her father come in that night. Julie catches a TV report that Olivier is finishing Patrice’s work, along with a photo showing Patrice with a mistress. This compels Julie to seek Olivier out, both to finish the Concert and to start a relationship with him. It also compels her to seek out Patrice’s mistress, a lawyer pregnant with his child, and later to give her the as-yet unsold house, to raise her child in.

In Julie’s startling personal generosity—a noble freedom from revenge—we have a symbol for what the welfare state can achieve, but also an acknowledgment of its limits. Not every single mother is gifted a lavish country manor. More are in the less happy circumstances of Lucille, whose liberation by sex work means facing her father outside family protection. Such liberated eros for liberated individuals is a far more common path to fatherless children. Family is lost to gain a primarily erotic liberation in the modern welfare state.

The story of liberty begins, as does each film in this trilogy, with an image of technology. In Blue, it is a close-up of a solitary spinning car wheel. The image excludes the rest of the mechanical apparatus that makes the car’s stable, continued motion possible. The wheel cannot move by itself. Heidegger has pointed out how uncanny it is that everything in modern technological society works. So much has to go right all the time for every part of every car to work in unison. Most of the time, everything works and we simply take for granted the power this gives us. When it fails to work, we are suddenly forced to face our existential situation unprotected.

That everything works of course proves the success of the modern project. And it helps us understand what Tocqueville meant when he called Descartes the greatest democrat. Schoolchildren solve mathematical problems beyond the capacity of the wisest ancients with Cartesian algebra. This universal enlightenment is necessary to the modern technology and commerce at the heart of modern freedom. We become masters and possessors of nature by and for pursuing the objects of technological commerce globally. This makes faith in Progress possible, even easy. We are all equally free—the greatest musical geniuses and the humblest manual workers—to travel great distances in our vehicles, to see whatever sights our hearts desire.

But no matter how many stress tests engineers design for their car parts, no matter how many recalls auto manufacturers issue, fortuna will never be forced into complete submission. We will never be free from catastrophe. An image of dripping oil, hidden from the view of the family, foretells the accident that kills Patrice and Julie’s daughter. They crash into a tree. A beach ball rolls behind the wreckage, repeating the opening motif.

Julie seeks to free herself from the pain of her past. After she leaves the hospital—where technology offered her the luxury of viewing her husband and daughter’s public funeral on a portable television—she orders all her possessions and family home sold, in part so the servants will continue to have a living, but also to fund her mother’s stay in a rest home, burdens she does not want on her conscience. She even collects the score for Patrice’s Concert from the copyist and throws it in a garbage truck. But she cannot forget the music—parts of which she heard on that portable television.

Julie’s private drama is connected to politics through her and her husband’s music, which commemorates not just honorable wishes for Europe but also, more melancholically, the honored dead. Our hopes for the future are ennobled by our knowledge of our mortality. To live as human beings, we must accept that technological liberation cannot be liberation from mortality. Nor can our political technologies liberate us from our predicament. Patrice cannot be immortalized by Europe. Kieślowski’s drama juxtaposes Patrice’s music with his fate, offering a more complete and truthful picture of the Western half of Europe.

The movement toward European union—implying the universal and homogeneous state that can overcome the Cold War divide that had split Europe in two—is driven largely by the memory of the catastrophic European past. Unification would render borders obsolete and ensure lasting freedom, but it involves erasing the past and our cultural identities. Are we overcoming history or forgetting it? Kieślowski next examines this problem as it appears in post-Communist Poland, where freedom is new.

* * *

Seeking Patrice’s mistress at the Palais de Justice, Julie briefly enters a courtroom. We hear the question: “Where is the equality?” At this moment her story intersects with Karol Karol’s, a Polish hairdresser and the protagonist of White, which begins with the divorce proceedings Julie glimpses. Karol’s French wife, Dominique, wants a divorce because he never consummated the marriage. After she humiliates him in court, she cuts his access to his bank account. He is compelled to beg for money in the Paris Metro, where a fellow Pole, Mikołaj, recognizes the traditional Polish song he’s playing with his comb and agrees to fly him back to Poland in his luggage—and pay him, if Karol is willing to kill the unhappy Mikołaj.

But bad luck ruins their agreement. The two are separated when the luggage containing Karol is stolen at the airport in Poland. After the thieves beat him, Karol makes it back home and abandons his hairdresser work for entrepreneurship, to make enough money to win back and get revenge on Dominique. He reconnects with Mikołaj and agrees to kill him for money. After Karol shoots him with a blank, Mikołaj realizes he wants to live, and they start a business together.

Karol makes his fortune, fakes his death, and frames Dominique for murder by leaving her his estate. He gives her what she had taken from him in the divorce. He had planned to leave for Hong Kong after her imprisonment but realizes he still loves her, and White closes with Karol tearfully looking up at her through a prison window as she signals her desire to marry him.

Blue’s story of a car propelling a family to disaster on the roads outside of Paris dramatized our inability to master chance and free ourselves from human attachments and memories. White starts in the world of fast, cheap international air travel, with a safe arrival. We see luggage moving on an airport conveyor belt, the camera moving along with it. Though we don’t know it yet, we are in Warsaw. Here, humans are more dangerous than machines, and inequality means taking advantage of the lax rule of law for profit.

We briefly see several suitcases of various sizes, colors, and orientations gliding before us. But suddenly a larger, russet trunk enters the conveyor, filling the frame and occluding our view of the others. It, we later learn, contains Karol, and is about to be stolen by airport personnel who notice it’s much heavier than the others. We cannot distribute our attention equally. Various objects always present in our field of vision, and there’s no predicting what might come to absorb our attention. Had Karol never met Dominique, his story would undoubtedly have varied. Freedom seems to consist in variability, in having many different possibilities, almost as spectators, without having much control. But desire orients us toward inequality, necessarily preferring some to others. Perhaps we judge like the thieving airport ­personnel—size matters.

After we cut to Karol approaching the Palais de Justice, we cut back to the conveyor belt. Now, the stationary camera stands above and pans to follow the trunk at different stages in its transit. Kieślowski’s drama reproduces our attention, which is by nature limited, but also directed. We are reminded that we are forced to be ourselves. We cannot simply share in the public identity that seems dictated by our ideas of equality. The less we are the same, the less we can be equal, it seems. Freedom to be ourselves necessarily conflicts with our equality, which is primarily political, tied up with law and justice. Our ideas about ourselves come as stories where we are protagonists, not abstract ideals or patterns where we fit alongside everyone else. To be human, we must be individuals.

Our discontent with inequality is as unavoidable as this inequality itself. The plain-looking Pole Karol Karol is at the Palais de Justice to have his divorce from the beautiful French Dominique finalized. He just needs time, he protests, to consummate the marriage. He explains he had been able to please her before they were married. “Where is the equality?” he asks via translator, complaining that the language barrier means he cannot get a fair trial. Dominique later privately repeats his complaint: He barely speaks French, so how can they be married? France cannot offer him full equality, since his powers to act are defined by his past. He has to make himself equal to his new French situation or face terrible consequences.

How did they get married in the first place? They met at a hairdressing competition Karol had won—he easily impressed her, in the element of the beautiful. In the element of the just, however, their union is broken. In France, she wants him to be someone he is not, and he knows it. Her demands for togetherness, or sameness in pleasure and speech, are universal. But there is a shocking consequence. Since she cannot have the goods of marriage, she gets justice instead, using the laws to punish him, to unman him.

Karol seems to agree with her, so he transforms into someone the French woman could understand and be pleased by. The equality that eluded love will come as revenge, equality in humiliation. Again, he agrees with her: you should punish those who don’t give you what you want. Justice seems more powerful than eros. Love is fickle and reversible, unlike punishment. Far from the ideals of Enlightenment, we see here a possibility that matches the troubles of our times much better: What if punishment is what people live for?

Karol effaces his Polish identity and his vocation as a hairdresser. He practices his French at night, alone, listening to and repeating an instructional cassette. Technology achieves what his wife didn’t, replacing her and recalling her at once. But he’s distracted by the alabaster bust of a French woman he stole from a Paris shop and moves, Pygmalion-like, to kiss it. He is practicing the imperfect subjunctive, saying: “Would that I had pleased.”

Kieślowski thus describes the predicament of the eastern half of the proposed union. Poland would be forced to make itself into something pleasing to liberalism. To start his business, Karol needs first to acquire capital, by working as a guard for money exchangers—it’s hard to “get ahead” cutting hair—and then to convince some fellow Poles to sell him their land. He profits from the knowledge that Ikea wants it for a warehouse. The business that makes his fortune is also about making money out of timely knowledge of the fickleness of desire. He buys returned merchandise—household appliances, electronics—and waits for the price to go up to resell it profitably.

The commerce that makes us free seems to depend on exploiting fickle desire without making people happy. It leads to the inequality of some outsmarting others in the pursuit of wealth. And although the European Union comes with lofty Enlightenment ideals, people seem to do little more than procure devices to free them from their chores. Realistically, commerce is preferable to tyranny, but Kieślowski’s realism includes the truth about the injustices commerce encourages. The pretense of equality leads to humiliation when real inequality is exposed, and people’s disappointed desires will seek the equality of revenge. Perhaps faith in Progress cannot make tragedy obsolete.

* * *

The heroine of Red is a lonely Genevan model and student, Valentine. Her boyfriend, Michel, lives in England, and they can never connect for more than a few minutes on the phone. Across the street, though, lives the law student Auguste, whose girlfriend, Karin, runs a weather-forecasting service.

On her way home after a show one night, Valentine hits and injures a dog. The dog’s owner—a retired judge, Joseph Kern—seems not to want her back. Valentine takes her to a vet and assumes ownership, until she runs back home one day. Valentine follows her and discovers Joseph tapping his neighbors’ phones, including Karin’s, with surveillance technology. Joseph predicts that Karin and Auguste are not right for one another. Karin indeed soon betrays Auguste, just as the only woman Joseph ever loved had betrayed him before his retirement.

Valentine leaves Joseph, disgusted and indignant at his spying, and because of her he soon turns himself in by writing letters to his neighbors and to the police. She reads about his resulting legal troubles in the paper and visits him to assure him she had nothing to do with it. He encourages her to go visit Michel in England by ferry; he also tells her he dreamed about her, waking up at the age forty or fifty, happy. She plans the trip and the ferry sinks in a storm. Among the handful of survivors are Julie and Olivier, Karol and Dominique, and Valentine and Auguste.

Red, the story about fraternity, begins with a missed connection between a man and a woman. A man’s hand dials his beloved, and we follow the signal from the phone, along the wire that connects it to the telephone jack in his room, spiraling inside the wire at almost light speed—far faster than Julie’s car or Karol’s Paris-Warsaw plane. We follow the signal as the cables descend into the English Channel and emerge on the Continent, going underground to its destination in Switzerland—Geneva, to be precise, a European home of the UN—the only major European state not in the EU. But the line, our heroine Valentine’s, is busy.

Communication technology makes long-distance relationships difficult—especially for jealous men, who insist on bodily connection, not only words. Valentine’s boyfriend, Michel, expects her to be there and pick up whenever he calls. The answering machine is not a connection, but an obstacle for him, and makes him suspicious. Eros, awakened by beauty, which everyone can see, inevitably becomes possessive of it. It is a private if universal desire to eliminate privacy, the opposite of sharing. Technology promises us what we want when we want it. It makes the beloved present to the lover even when the two are in different countries. But it can only partially overcome the privacy of the body through images. Whoever has met someone online or conducted a relationship in part via text message will think Kieślowski prophetic.

In the Republic, Plato teaches us that perfect justice is only possible through an abstraction from eros. This requires indoctrination in a noble lie that says all citizens are siblings born from the earth. If there are several families, there will be conflicting loyalties. So the family must be abolished, as in Sparta, if citizens are to give complete loyalty to their city. Men and women must also be made completely equal, to eliminate the tension between erotic love and morality. This plan to conquer nature must conquer chance, or else fraternity is impossible. Fraternity itself means brotherhood: the brotherhood of man would require canceling our erotic nature, which causes us to separate from society, in couples and then families. Technology makes our modern way of life and its own attempt to conquer chance possible, but, curiously, as it encourages abstraction from the actual world where our desires arise, it also exacerbates them. Nature escapes control.

Kieślowski shows how technology, with its images, distracts us from living together with our literal neighbors. Valentine’s phone prevents her from meeting the man she is supposed to be with, the young judge Auguste across the street. The drama reveals they are always almost together. Early on, the camera turns from Valentine, inside her apartment and on the phone with Michel, to her apartment window. As she and her jealous boyfriend across the Channel discuss the weather in each place, the things they’ve done separately, and their plans to reconnect by phone later—symptoms of a technologically facilitated long-distance relationship—we see Auguste enter his apartment. A moment later, Valentine reenters the frame to close the window. Later, the two future lovers stand back to back in a music store listening to the same music through headphones—Valentine alone, Auguste with the woman who will soon betray him. The only time he sees his beautiful neighbor, before the accident on the English Channel that brings them together, is when he catches her in a giant bubblegum ad while driving his car.

Valentine is a model. The eyes and cameras of strangers attend her, on the catwalk or in her image in ads—presaging the Instagram model’s loneliness (even if Valentine doesn’t show any vanity). Ads featuring beautiful women create a potentially fratricidal fraternity. Male viewers, all potential lovers, are the same, but they cannot all actually be the woman’s lovers. They become competitors, and the fantasy distracts them from real love.

An accident—hitting the dog of the retired judge and fellow lonely soul Joseph—leads Valentine to the meeting that starts the central drama. Joseph retired, we learn at the end, after he convicted a man with whom the only woman he ever loved had betrayed him, before she died in an accident. The ruling was legal, but the judge thenceforth was done with the law. Legal revenge did not make him happy and disillusioned him with his profession. The law is supposed to be impartial, but those who enforce it are human beings with private lives: justice requires they abstract from their own loves, as in Plato’s Republic.

In his loneliness, Joseph eavesdrops technologically on his neighbors’ phone calls. Technology gives him the secret truth the open courtroom may not, he explains to an indignant Valentine, who believes people have a right to their secrets. Secrecy or privacy seems necessary to fraternity—as we are learning with social media. How many friends or acquaintances have we lost by learning more about them than we’d care to? When Valentine rushes to reveal to one of Joseph’s neighbors that he is listening, she learns that there is more to the story. It would risk revealing to an apparently happy family that the father has a gay lover. Auguste himself spies on his lover, to learn Karin is cheating. After Joseph turns himself in, his neighbors throw rocks through his windows. Together they anonymously reciprocate his violation of privacy. Even though the revelation of the truth may lead to legal justice, tragedy is not thereby obviated.

Valentine makes an exception to the universal right to privacy. When Joseph tells her that one of his neighbors likely controls the Geneva heroin trade, she calls him and tells him he deserves to die, which justice cannot accomplish while respecting privacy rights. She’s angry because her brother Marc became an addict, demoralized by learning at fifteen that his father was not his father. His parents had lied to him his whole life. It’s as hard to maintain even the noblest of lies as to live with the truth. Valentine sees a photo of him shooting up in the newspaper and worries her parents will see it and find out the truth.

Freedom weakens family: the newspaper-consuming public knows more about Marc’s pain and shame than do his parents. Our privacy is constituted by shame, which our technology violates, and yet people may live with terrible secrets who would die were those revealed. Enlightenment ideals force us to make universal claims about our rights that we can neither sustain psychologically nor apply universally.

Joseph reveals his own secret—violating his neighbors’ secrets—not because Valentine persuades him it is wrong, but because he wants to see how she’ll react to the news. He perhaps expects her return will lead to her getting together with Auguste—which it does. The state’s legal justice is put in the service of someone’s private erotic satisfaction—unbeknownst to the state.

What the state does know from Joseph’s confessional letter to the police seems to be insufficient for its purposes. Since human beings can lie, the confession of secret law-breaking is not the same as neutral observation of the act itself. So we glimpse a surveillance van apparently working to confirm Joseph’s crimes by imitating them, legally. The state jealously wants its laws followed; it wants to see with its own eyes to make a better case and be more effective at punishment. And while it maintains its secrecy, it necessarily opposes ours. Kieślowski had direct experience of this totalitarian temptation under Communism, but he prophesies that the West, too, will face it, as technology develops. Time will tell how long we’ll maintain our privacy—and what fraternity it still permits.

In the end, Joseph watches TV reports of the ferry disaster that killed everyone on board except the lovers from the trilogy and the ferry’s English bartender. Television coverage ends with an image of Valentine nearly identical to her bubblegum ad: the ironic identity of fake happiness and true happiness, which includes surviving whatever catastrophes might come. Then Joseph looks at us, through his broken window, a single tear below his eye, his lips almost slyly smiling. We end with Valentine. The retired judge was somewhat responsible for this end, which makes Auguste, the younger judge, find happiness with her. Kieślowski smiles at us. He knows we’re glad the couples we’ve been watching attentively throughout the trilogy survive and end up together. We may also be happy that Karin, who betrayed Auguste, has died on a yacht with her new lover, despite her weather-forecasting business. We may also be jealous of the men on-screen, who have the three most beautiful women we’ve seen. But are we really free to want the equality and fraternity of the French Revolution or the EU?

Happy endings, when they are orchestrated by the plotting mind of the master director, are satisfying. In political life, when they are identified with abstractions, their pursuit—whether through revolution or administration—can be tragic. We are better served attending to our neighbors as complex individuals, enslaved in more ways than they are free, beautiful in their inequality; we are better served hearkening to the words of the Concert for the Unification of Europe—a call to authentic fraternity from 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. ♦

Steven Fairchild is a teacher in Phoenix, Arizona.

I want to thank Titus Techera for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

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