Krzysztof Kieslowski began his directing career as a reluctant film student looking to get into the theater, and ended it, after the triumph of the Three Colors trilogy, complaining that the movies couldn’t attain the sublimities of literature; in the quarter-century between, he finessed a cinema of political skepticism and spiritual inquiry, scratching at norms and forms with the conviction that there must be more to life than this. Dovetailing with LACMA’s “Essential Kieslowski” showcase, Filmforum gathers 15 of the director’s early short documentaries — plus two student fictions, The Tram (1966) and Concert of Requests (1967) — into an aptly loose triptych of “etudes, sketches and fully realized portraits” to be shown over three Sundays. Amid the wishful and shabby lies of communism, “there was a necessity, a need . . . to describe the world,” Kieslowski reflected, and many of these pieces highlight the stifling bureaucratic realities that coagulated from the Marxist dream. The Office (1966) and Refrain (1972) chart the depersonalizing routines of a welfare office and a mortuary, respectively; Factory (1970) and Bricklayer (1973) contrast managerial gamesmanship with the resilient dignity of labor. The rather wonderful Hospital (1977) finds its chain-smoking doctors “bloody but unbowed!” after a 36-hour shift equipped with broken hammers, powerless drills and surgical thread “fit for old boots,” while the same year’s hilarious From the Point of View of the Night Porter is a near caricature of the tin-pot fascist mindset. (Surveying the banks of a river idyll, the film’s pro-hanging, hippie-loathing subject volunteers a favorite hobby: “I like checking my mates’ fishing permits.” One day, he muses, he’d like a position of real responsibility.) In his own art, Kieslowski was beginning to discover the virtues of structures and stratagems — Seven Women of Different Ages (1978) adapts Shakespeare’s Seven Ages soliloquy to the ballet boards, while Talking Heads (1980) asks 44 people of increasing years the same three questions — but he was also hitting the limits of documentary intimacy. After rushes from Railway Station (1980) were commandeered by the authorities investigating a murder, Kieslowski signed off from the form, taking its precepts into fiction filmmaking on his journey toward the human heart. (Filmforum at the Egyptian Theater; thru May 28.

—Nick Bradshaw

LA Weekly