Set in a Polish state aid office in 1966, Urzad is a five minute documentary film by cult Polish film director Kieslowski, and a short and evocative reminder of just how bureaucracy may be used for political ends. In an age of tough austerity measures, the documentary still feels relevant.
We look on as a young office worker (and gate keeper to essential state aid for the most destitute people) follows every rule to the very letter, with the result that nobody who comes to her office seems to walk away having received the help they needed. Instead they fall into a miasma of form-filling and a bewildering and seemingly endless bureaucratic process, Kieslowski’s documentary wryly suggesting that perhaps that is the real point of this particular office.
The filmmaker observantly captures bleak looks in the waiting room, as those waiting slowly lose hope, we see the flash of the office worker’s diamond ring. Her cool glass of water.
An elderly woman’s hand is slowly pressed to her mouth, as though she tries to stop herself from speaking or crying out. Others sink, into one of the few chairs in the waiting room, as if exhausted by the very act of asking for help. Others lean on walls or press against the grille. Kieslowski, with his usual light, wry touch, in this short film manages to evoke the very quality of waiting. And how power really works.
Kieslowski is a subtle documentary maker, the young office worker at the centre of his film is nothing less than sweet-voiced, reasonable, impossible to hate, even as she sends an elderly woman to the back of the queue once again. Or as she sharpens her pencil in a slow and obviously passive aggressive power-play. An elderly man attempts to speak several times before the understanding comes to him that he must wait for her to finish sharpening. His emergency is not urgent to her. Kieslowski captures the old man’s soft blink of confusion, then despair, as he gets the message.
Kieslowski plays with the glimpse of a barely human reflection in the glass pane divide between the anxious queue and the young bureaucrat. There is the occasional sound of doors closing.
But she isn’t inhuman (Kieslowski is much too subtle a film-maker to allow that), and she may even be an object of compassion in her own right, Kieslowski appears to hint. At a minimum she seems uncomprehending of her role in this bureaucratic psychological nightmare, or of her true role in this system. She is very young, childish face and tragic teenage haircut. You can almost hear her tell you that she is only following orders, instructions from above. You can imagine that the job, in its given form, must be overwhelming. That she has been stitched up just as much as anyone else in the room.
Meantime the thousands of forms are lodged, unread, like a swelling mass behind her. Kieslowski, with his usual irony, ends the film with a soundtrack of the young woman’s voice, played on a loop, as his camera scans the bulging files behind her. She is speaking in light sing-song tones:
“Fill in the form.”
“State what you have done throughout your lifetime.”
“All questions must be answered Yes or No.”
And for one more Kieslowski link, the puppet show from Kieslowski’s ‘La Double Vie De Veronique’ is a short and wonderful piece. Kieslowski wrote in his autobiography that the children shown watching the puppet show weren’t actors and that their reactions inspired the depressed (but very gifted) real-life puppeteer to re-examine things and, finally, to return to his craft. Kieslowski said that, for him, it had been worth making the whole film just to have accomplished that one thing.