Monday, August 15, 2011

Classic Throwback: Camera Buff (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1979)

A woman has died but she lives on through this (film).

Camera Buff, or Amator (meaning ‘amateur) as the Polish title reads, is an early film from celebrated filmmaker, Krzystztof Kieslowski, who writes and directs. It was released in 1979 and was Kieslowski’s first international and commercial success. I’m not sure if it is perhaps loosely autobiographical, though it documents the artistic and political awakening of lead character, Filip Mosz (Jerzy Stuhr), which would not have been unlike Kieslowsi’s himself. 

Camera Buff follows the humble factory worker whose newfound hobby, amateur film, swiftly becomes an obsession and wildly transforms his formerly contented life. Having purchased the 8mm camera to film home movies of his first child immediately following birth, the evidently nervous new father soon becomes drawn into the fascination and power of the camera and the possibilities of the medium. He turns all of his attention to filmmaking and ignores his familial responsibilities. Essentially, he finds the passion he has been seeking all of his life and had all but given up finding, on the night his daughter is born.

His responsibility to his wife and daughter slip off his radar as his gaze fixes on Anna Wlodarczyk (Ewa Pokas), a beautiful young 'amateur' who encourages Filip’s filmmaking, the various activities he films and the intriguing and glamorous world of filmmakers and cinephiles. The consequences of such a time-consuming obsession and neglect for his familial responsibilities prove heartbreaking not just for himself, as Filip watches his formerly contented and modest lifestyle slip from his grasp.

Camera Buff is quite an extensive look at breaking into the world of filmmaking and cinema and of a nation crippled by Communism and a man whose artistic ambitions transcended the Party’s political agenda. Above all though, it is about the impacts of misguided obsession. Kieslowski always squeezes into his films a number of complex themes, both on a political level (commenting on Polish, or French society) and on an individual level. Kieslowski manages to tie all this into his own personal agenda too.

What is tragic about this film is that Filip realizes, but all too late, that he should have reflected on the consequences that his camera obsession has on himself, his personal life and his family. Not only would he have learned that his priorities lay in the wrong place, but it would have been the compelling human story he so desired. Instead he creates controversy when he ignores the orders of his local Communist Party boss, who initially hires him to film a Jubilee celebration (which Filip wins an award for), and uses a unique employee and a local housing restoration issue as inspiration for his later films. These are films that are well made, transform Filip into a minor celebrity and are picked up by a television network, but were not at all desired by his financiers.

Camera Buff is an extraordinary film, and one that has aged very well. I can certainly see why it was a critical and commercial success back in 1979 but it is no less compelling today. Stuhr’s lead performance is great, but I haven’t been able to shake the thought of how good this film looks, having been shot on 16mm. While the climate is overcast for most of the film, and the small town Filip and his wife live in is far from picturesque, the consistent quality of the image is sublime. 

As is Kieslowski’s inventiveness with the camera. Often you think you are watching what Filip is filming (through the lens of his 8mm or 16mm) but then the camera shifts to frame him in the process of filming, clearly discounting that possibility. Simultaneously, as Filip is documenting the oppressive state of living in his small town, Kieslowski is also commenting on Polish society, deftly endowing the film with a sensitive humour and a very evident sympathy for Filip. The great man continues to surprise me.


  1. This along with every full-length film (not counting shorts) that Kieslowski has done before The Double Life of Veronique are the ones I want to see. Once I see everything, I will do an Auteurs profile on him.

  2. Oh, I'm not sure if your region plays Criterion DVDs but here is all the info on Trois Couleurs box set from Criterion. Now I'm trying to figure out whether or not to sell my box set because of what isn't on the Criterion DVD set.

  3. Great review Andy,

    After watch the Double Life Of Veronique I've really been getting into Kieslowski's films and have started watching the Three Colors Trilogy.
    This one seems great as well, so I'll definitely check it out.

  4. @ Steven - I have made it my mission to go back and watch some of Kieslowski's earlier work too. I have The Decalogue ready to go. But I know it will take more commitment than I can must right now. I'm not sure if I have ever seen Criterion DVDs anywhere. I think I saw a few in Melbourne, but they were super expensive.

    @ Jack - Thanks Jack. I hope you are enjoying Kieslowski. I was recommended this one by James at Cinema Sights. I wasn't disappointed. The man is a genius.

  5. Fantastic review Andy... I have this one on DVD (along with most other Kieslowski's) but have never found the moment to sit down and watch it. But after your review I'm gonna try to grab a screening sometime this week. It's funny that so much Eastern European Cinema can seem dull on the surface, but can be hugely rewarding once you've taken the plunge. I often find myself thinking "how come I didn't watch that film sooner ?"

  6. Thanks for reading Wes. Yeah, I was recommended this one after I informed my readers that I was going to work my way through Kieslowski, and it's just as rewarding as his later films. There are so many films I still have to see, but I have thought that countless times. Camera Buff is really fantastic. I hope you enjoy it.

  7. Great review. It is indeed loosely biographical as Kieslowski ended up turning away from documentary films after he began to be disillusioned with the medium.

    While I like the title Camera Buff, I love Amateur more because it's a must better summation of what the film's about. It's a thought-provoking and tragic tale that deals with obsession, film and the social ramifications of an individual's actions.

  8. James, that's quite interesting and not at all surprising, I, too, prefer the name 'Amateur'. I really felt for Filip's character. It was so great to see him full of such passion and enthusiasm, but tragic to see the consequences. I thought Kieslowski did a great job pushing us to sympathise with his character, and never to dislike him. It was well structured and engaging throughout, and really delved into some important socialist themes.

  9. Hi Andy. I've put a bit of information on my website this evening regarding Criterion's recent announcement of their Three Colors Blue White and Red Blu-ray and DVD Box Sets due to be released on 15 November 2011 and pre-order priced at $63.96 and $47.96 respectively.

    Bonne soirée,
    Alexandre Fabbri

  10. Camera Buff was autobiographical about Kieslowski in the sense that it showed the protagonist eventually realizing the responsibility he had to carry; in Kieslowski's case not only to the actors/actresses but also to those he might film accidentally in his documentaries.

    For example, there was a major incidence in his life which changed him forever and that was when he was filming Station (1981) in which some of his footage was nearly used as evidence in a criminal case (a girl was suspected of murdering her mother, cutting up the body, packing it into two suitcases and putting the suitcases into a left-luggage locker at the station around the time of his filming a short film about the new left-luggage lockers that the station had had installed).

    Since then, Kieslowski was nervous about what the authorities were able to do with any film footage he might unknowingly shoot. He said in Danusia Stok's 1994 book, Kieslowski on Kieslowski: "It turned out that we hadn't filmed the girl. She was later arrested. But what did I realize at that moment? That, like it or not, independently of my intentions or will, I found myself in the situation of an informer or someone who gives information to the police - which I never wanted to do. They'd
    simply confiscated the material and that was it. I had no say in it. Then they returned it. Right, so we didn't film the girl. But if we had, by chance? We could have filmed her. If we'd turned the camera left instead of right, perhaps we'd have caught her. And what would have happened? I'd have become a police collaborator. And that was the moment I realized that I didn't want to make any more documentaries."

  11. @ Alexander- I own Trois Couleurs on DVD, which I am pretty content with at the moment. I haven't been able to locate too many places that sell Criterion editions here in Australia...or are they mostly purchased online? Thanks for informing me about Kielslowski's inspiration for Camera Buff. It's a interesting story and is really an eye-opener in regards to the social ramifications of documentary filmmaking.

  12. Andy, as you're in Sydney, let me recommend Title Music and Film in Surry Hills, of which I've been a happy customer for many years. They have a stack of Criterions, plus BFI, Masters of Cinema, Artificial Eye, etc. The only downside is the expense, obviously...

  13. Thank you James! I will absolutely check it out. Bit low on funds at the moment, but I'll put some money aside to see what they have there. I need at least one Criterion right?