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Blind Chance: Free Will in 4D?

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By William Repass. 

In Kieślowski’s 1981[1] metaphysical/political triptych, Blind Chance, the subtlest of details cut across three alternate storylines to triangulate a Poland on the verge of Solidarity. Take, for example, which drink the protagonist Witek (Bogusław Linda) favors in each divergence following the train station scene—a hinge, as it were, between narrative panels. In the first version, where he manages to catch his train to Warsaw and ends up joining the Communist Party, vodka becomes his drink of choice, and the figure of his blindness to disillusionment. In the second, where he misses his train and gets involved with a catholic anti-communist organization, his choice of tea gestures at sobriety, if not austerity—belied by his affair with a married woman. And in the concluding storyline, his preference for milk speaks to his infantile refusal to engage with politics (in itself a political stance, tacitly upholding the existing framework)—which refusal cannot, however, save him from arbitrary doom. Among an accumulation of such details across the film, this tiny instance of varied repetition not only generates centripetal force, it offers a challenge to the ideology of progress through history, common to both capitalism and communism. If a train track embodies one “track” of linear narrative—as it so often does, in such diverse films as Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929) and North by Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959)the train station functions in Blind Chance as a kind of drawstring bag. Here, knee-jerk actions trigger chain reactions, that nonetheless collapse together in a nexus of fate, nearly severing History from conscious choice.

blind-3Blind Chance is not first and foremost a political film, though politics are inseparable from its three alternate tracks, which fuse them with a metaphysical worldview. The conundrum at the core of the film is free will: can one individual decide his own fate in the face of history? Witek’s (largely unconscious) actions, even as he navigates a bureaucratic labyrinth, appear to have weighty ramifications. But by the time we start to follow him down the third track, recurrence of characters and situations shows how little it matters whether he joins with the Communist Party or the anti-communist activists. The surface of his life may change, but the essential structure remains as if predetermined. His future is constrained by his past as it intertwines his political context—glimpses of which we see in a series of flashbacks that open the film. If it is a cage, his is a cage of history. And yet, his moment-to-moment decisions do matter when compared to passivity. Witek’s “neutrality” in part three, or rather, his avoidance of responsibility, culminates in an attempt to escape from Poland altogether. The film ends as his airplane explodes on take off. In severing himself from context, Witek ceases to exist and the film cannot continue.

For the Western viewer, it is of special importance that Blind Chance, as a work purged of propaganda, undermines a stock image we’re all too often presented with. That is, of life under communism as a state of abject survival, an endless shambling down the bread queue. As with Black Wave films like Makavejev’s Man Is Not a Bird (1965), and even the likes of Menshov’s Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1980), Blind Chance shows us that while such images are by no means entirely false, they make up one facet of an infinitely complex human situation. Whether they present a thoroughgoing critique of communist society or a rose-tinted spectacle, some residue of truth remains. People under communism live the abiding dramas of joy and love and heartache, and the directors best suited to representing their lives—as people who struggle to find ways of getting by, as we all do, in spite of societal pressures—are most often those who lived and loved alongside them.

William Repass is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

Blind Chance was released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection.

[1]   Not actually released until 1987, however, on account of censorship.

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